I had a broken arm and I was happy. I was chipper. I was over the moon. My arm did not even hurt that much. The radiology staff at the hospital I ended up at were so impressed with just how shattered my elbow was that they came out to the waiting area to tell me they hadn’t seen one that bad in ages. I thought, this is brilliant!
It was a Sunday in May, 2012. I was 49 and catastrophically fat. I would not begin my epic weight-loss campaign until December. Right this moment, sitting on a bench outside the radiology suite at Joondalup Health Campus that Sunday morning, I’m not too bothered about my weight, despite the likelihood that it had some bearing in what happened.
I told everyone who asked that I tripped over our dog. But that’s not precisely true. That morning, I got up to go to the loo in our ensuite. Our aging dog, Pixel, a blue heeler/kelpie cross, lay snoozing right across the narrow path I had to navigate between the end of the bed and a big chest of drawers. I would have to step over Pixel. I knew that was one of her Things, things she didn’t like, things to which she reacted poorly. So I was worried, even before I got to her.
She was asleep, so that was good. I might be able to achieve the Perfect Crime, and gently step over her, and get clean away with it. I had managed it on other occasions. It was mathematically possible. It was worth the risk.
This moment is one of those bank vault door moments in my life, unrecognised at the time but seen clearly since, great armatures around which your whole life pivots.
I held my breath and lifted my leg over Pixel, tension in my belly, probably clenching my teeth. I’m clenching my teeth right now, writing about it.
Pixel woke up, and saw immediately what I was attempting, what I was trying to get away with. I was balancing on one foot. She leapt into ferocious, barking, growling action, and tried to bite my hovering foot. I tried to move my foot out of the way. I was familiar with her bites. She had bitten my hands and feet many times, sometimes hard enough to draw blood. I was scared. And, in this split-second, losing my balance.
Pixel lunged at me, and you could hear her jaws snapping shut as she tried to bite me.
I’m falling, suddenly. There is no clear sequence in which you have Moment 1 where I am fine and still sturdily upright, and Moment 2 where I have lost my balance and am starting to topple. It’s more like there is a moment when both conditions happen together. I’m upright and I’m falling over. I’m a liquid man, yet somehow also made of a tangle of angles, and it’s all in a panic, it knows it’s lost its equilibrium bit believes the situation can be recovered with the application of mere panic and flailing. I’m making no sound. I can see the room tilting, angling around me, but I have no comment at this time.
Then the concrete floor rears up towards me and my left elbow hits it with a mighty crunching thump.
Then the rest of me clatters and thumps into the ground and at last me and my jumble of blubbery bits come to rest on the floor, in a stunned, silent, winded, confused heap, sitting against a wall.
Did I mention I’m just wearing undies? It’s a morning in May. It’s nearly winter. It’s cold. The floor under me and the wall I’m leaning against are very cold, and I have a flush of gooseflesh.
Pixel has cleared out of the impact zone.
Michelle stirs, sensing trouble. “Sweetie?”
I tell her I’m all right. Fell over. I’m concerned about my left elbow. Elbows shouldn’t feel like a crushed bag of potato chips, should they?
I pick my various parts up from the floor. The room takes some time to stabilise into a coherent picture around me. I climb back into the cold bed. Michelle complains that I’m cold. I lie there feeling my elbow.
We end up at an emergency GP surgery operating on a Sunday, who when he hears the gear-crunching sound in my elbow sends me to Joondalup Hospital, my arm in a flimsy sling.
I feel so happy. Sleepy, very strangely sleepy, but happy.
I’m happy all that day. People are all deeply impressed when they see the x-rays. Surgery is scheduled for that night. A junior surgery comes by my bed in the emergency ward and marks my arm with a Sharpie pen to indicate that this arm is the one with the problem.
While processing through the emergency system, I see a boy of about twelve, who also appears to have at least fractured his arm, in the course of playing a game of footy by the look of him (the team jersey is a giveaway). Where I am over-the-moon, even a bit loopy with happiness and excitement, this boy is in agony. The slightest movement destroys him, drains him of colour. We overhear that unlike me, this boy has cracked one of his actual long bones, whereas I’ve shattered a joint. There is nothing in my elbow joint to rub together to cause pain, or not very much. But for this poor wretch of a boy, mere existence truly is agony. He is sent home without surgery, his bone not sufficiently sundered even for a cast.
Meanwhile, I’m daydreaming about casts. What it’ll be like, what I’ll get people to write on it. This is the first time since I was a little boy and got hit by a car as I ran across the road after a bully and broke my collar-bone that I’ve had a broken bone of any sort. All through my childhood and teen years I saw all my mates and other kids get broken arms and legs, and for weeks they were the centre of attention, got their friends to write and draw all over their casts, and it all looked pretty good fun. Or so I thought, bitterly, jealously, at the time.
Once I came through my surgery, once I was conscious again, I was surprised and disappointed to see that I had only a “half-cast”: it was a plaster cast formed like a gutter, if you will, to cradle my elbow. It didn’t wrap all the way around. There was very little exposed surface for anyone to write on.
One thing, though: I had the most awesome bruising in the world. It took a few days to fully develop, but at its most majestic, in its fullest flowering, it stretched, black and navy blue and sickest purple, from the upper reaches of my shoulder all the way down my arm to the palm of my hand. You could not have done a better job with a sick sense of humour and a paint roller.
This is all interesting and all, but I’ve left out the key point: what was I so damned happy about that day? Part of it was the juvenile thought of having people scribble on my cast (though who, exactly, I have no idea–I’m not known for my social butterfly ways), and part, undoubtedly, was stupid dumb shock.
But most of it, I think, was much more subtle, more profound: for the first time in decades I had something hugely VISIBLE wrong with me. I LOOKED SICK.
All my post-diagnosis life I’ve been a sick guy who doesn’t look sick. Who has had people reassure him endlessly that he seems perfectly fine, which is no reassurance at all. You don’t tell regular people they look well. Telling a sick person they look well seems a bit like telling a migrant to your country that they speak good English: it draws attention to their difference.
Or maybe I’m just picky and disagreeable. That could be. What I do know is that I absolutely loved “having a prop” to use, like an actor, doing “stage business” performing the part of a man with something wrong with him. It was exhilarating, and I was a little disappointed when it was over and I had to go back to my “civilian” life.
During my hospitalisation, surgery, recovery and agonising five-month rehab for this injury, in which I was up against a major ordeal to get my arm function back (long story short: I got back 100% function in the joint; the therapists were deeply impressed with my commitment to the process. I said I was getting my arm back, no matter what, dammit), I posted about the whole experience, beginning to end, on my Facebook feed.
Last year, when I was admitted to hospital for the medication change process, I decided to document that experience, the entire thing, for good or ill, no matter what, in the very same way. Because, from my point of view, it is profoundly the same sort of thing. They are both medical procedures. One of them involved an orthopaedic surgeon who cracked jokes and used power-tools, and the other involved a squad of psychiatrists, more medications than I can remember, and a sense of deep interiority that is hard to articulate–but they are the same thing. In both cases I was a car sent to the garage and put up on the hoist to have the wheels rebalanced, the sump drained, and all the rest of it. It’s the same thing, so here I am writing about this experience, too. It’s my life, and it might be yours, too.