I Walked on My Toes Until I Was Twelve

The title is a sentence I start a lot of conversations out with, especially lately with my recent foot surgery. The correction of a hallux valgus deformity is often just referred to as “bunion surgery” which a lot of people don’t take seriously as a medical condition, since a common cause of the condition is long term wear of ill-fitted footwear. That certainly contributed to the acceleration of an already worsening problem for me, but only because my feet were already so wide it was impossible to get non-custom shoes in the width I actually needed. So the inability to find properly fitting shoes caused my feet to get wider and more deformed. I imagine very few women in their 30s, 40s, and even 50s having this surgery arrived by the same path I did. Professional women are expected to wear shoes that are horrible for their anatomy, without much thought put into proper care of their feet. I was told one time by a manager that old adage “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” Only she was chiding me for wearing tennis shoes to a call center, saying that dressing the part meant having to wear dress shoes. I sat across that desk from her and plainly said something like “I wear a size 7.5 4E. They don’t make dress shoes wide enough for my feet. I don’t get paid enough to spend hundreds of dollars on a pair of custom made shoes. So that isn’t going to be something I change.” She just looked at me for a moment, flabbergasted, knowing she couldn’t keep going down this particular line of coaching with me and moved onto something else.

It’s Not a Vanity Thing, I Really Am in Pain

I get shooting pains in my feet (both, at random) and general soreness from standing for more than a few minutes usually that leads to worse pain the longer I stand. I’m always early to shows because if I don’t get a chair I won’t be able to stay. That, and I want to sit close so James can see, since he is practically blind in one eye. I had my first bunion surgery a little over five years ago. The surgeon told me I’d be able to dance barefoot after three months probably. I was not walking at all until after three months, and it would be six months after my surgery before I could perform again. It would be a full year before I could dance with any sort of confidence in my balance again. The angle on my right foot was so severe, I still don’t have my balance back on that foot yet. I’ve developed a callous almost the size of my old bunion to compensate. Below are the x-rays from before the surgery in December 2013, and again in February, after the surgery.

xrays

I’ve shared these before on social media, but it bears repeating just how messed up my feet are from walking on my toes until adolescence. How could this happen? Who let this happen? Why did you start walking on your toes? All valid questions. My mom told me that when I was a baby in my crib I would pull myself up on the side, so high up that I’d be on the tips of my toes and they’d start to curl under. No one knows if I was born with short heel cords, or it was just something that I did since I was a baby learning to walk and never grew out of. My mom smoked menthol cigarettes while she was pregnant with me, and around me all my life until, well, she had to quit. I blame my poor circulation, weird anxiety brain, pretty much all my congenital health problems on being exposed to nicotine and hundreds of chemicals while my nervous system, lungs, heart and everything else developed in and out of the womb. So, if anything, it was likely a birth defect. But the ignorant doctors of the 1980s kept telling my parents I would “grow out of it.” They prescribed really ugly shoes that only made the kids bully me more, and did nothing but frustrate my parents for blowing out the sides of yet another pair of expensive shoes they could not afford. Finally, when I was 11 years old, my great Aunt Bubba, who I found out later when she passed was actually a ballerina at one point, saw me and asked “what is wrong with that child? why does she walk on her toes?” My mom explained I’d always done that and the doctors didn’t think they could do anything for me. My great Aunt knew better, and made a decent sized donation to Shriner’s Hospital for (Crippled) Children for me to have an immediate consultation. Since they serve families regardless of their ability to pay, at the time there was usually a year long wait list to be seen.

The Bullies of my Youth

Kids used to tease me saying I wanted to be a ballerina and that’s why I walked on my toes. Truth was, I wish I’d been able to go to a dance class. My working class parents could maybe afford that type of thing with one child, but certainly not with two. I was told at one point if I had taken ballet classes as a kid, that the first they would have done is taught me how to stand flat on my feet, and it probably would have been beneficial. The kids in school called me “twinkle toes.” I was extremely underweight, skin and bones, so they used to body shame me and the way I looked, too. Of course, I was called rude things once I got glasses in the second grade. I used to remember more specifically the names they called me, which were very hurtful, but I’ve grown past keeping those things taking up space in my memory I guess. Point being, I cried every single day. Even in the summer. I was a happy enough kid, I think, but I am a very emotional person. I am so sensitive even now because I was constantly bullied for things I had absolutely no control over. Having glasses, being skinny, having a physical deformity so I walked on my toes. You know how shitty it is to make fun of a differently-abled person? Yeah, all those kids were shitty to me. Even some of the teachers were. I’ll never forget in the third grade when Sister John (every bit the militant nun in a German-Catholic school in South City you’d expect) pulled me aside after recess one day. The rest of the students weren’t really paying attention, settling down from the afternoon break. She had me stand at her desk and stand as high as I could on my toes. Higher. HIGHER. Now, walk.

The desks were arranged in a semi-circle that day, so I started at one end of the room and walked in front of each of my classmates, as our teacher, the trusted adult in the classroom, started to point out how my knees turned in, how my back wasn’t straight. She continued having me walk as she told the class all the health problems she felt I was going to have as a result of walking on my toes. I can’t remember what all she said, but I can remember the hot feeling in my ears, and the tears welling up in the corners of my eyes as I felt the judgement of the people who already hated me, jeering at me for the very thing that made me the most self-conscious. After the gauntlet was over, I was dismissed to return to my desk, where I couldn’t hold back any longer. I silently cried and wiped my face, just like I had done so many times before at school. I think, and hope, that was one of the times I immediately told my parents of an injustice against me, and was one of the times my mom went into protective mama bear mode and tore the principal a new one. Maybe it wasn’t. I might have held onto that trauma for a long time before I told anyone, I honestly can’t remember. Either way, it was fucked up what she did. It turns out, she was trying to embarrass me into walking correctly, because she thought that I was doing it for attention. It wasn’t, oh you know, a real medical condition or anything.

This type of thing was indicative of how the school treated me my entire K-8 there. Not all of my teachers were nuns, but even the lay people weren’t any better. My sixth grade year, before my first leg surgery, I fell running backwards in gym class playing frisbee. I sat on my left foot going down, against the asphalt playground/parking lot. It hurt right after, and for the rest of the day. It didn’t swell up, but there was a pinpoint bruise on the top of my foot that looked nothing like any other injury I’d had. I went to the office, they put some ice on it, asked me if it felt better (which it did once it was good and numb) and sent me back to class. The rest of the day I walked on the left side of the staircases so I could hold onto the banister and hop down as not to put anymore weight on it. Since this was completely out of order, the rest the children walking single file on the right side of the staircase, I was threatened with detention if I kept doing it. So I walked on a fractured foot the rest of the day, because I was only acting like I was injured for attention.

I showed my mom as soon as I got home, and she said “that looks broken, we’re going to the ER right now.” It was only a fracture, but because I walked on my toes, instead of putting me in a walking boot the doctor decided to cast it so it could heal correctly. Otherwise it wouldn’t. I missed school the next day, and went back on Thursday, on crutches. The kids were all aghast. They asked me what happened. “I broke my foot in gym class, remember?” Oh, oh I guess you really did break your foot… Yeah, ya think? My mom was furious. She said “I don’t care if my kid says she has a runny fucking nose, you call me.” She gave no fucks about cursing in front of nuns. My mom was a spitfire, and I am forever grateful to have gotten my passion from her.

What happened next was the damnedest thing. Kids who hated me wanted to sign my cast. They offered to help me carry my books so they could get out of class early. Those fuckers were completely taking advantage of me, yet again, because I was weak, and shy, and naive that they actually cared about me at all. I had one close school friend growing up, because she was as much of an outcast as me. She was from Laos, born in Thailand due to her parents escaping persecution (i.e. her and her sister were the only first generation Asian-Americans in our school) and so she ate weird food and her family had strange customs. She spoke another language that no one outside her family knew and sounded so much different than other languages we’d heard. They were also Mormon, but attended this private Christian South City school near where they lived, so she learned Catholicism with the rest of us, but was still very much an outsider. Her and I were the unpopular-unpopular kids. She wanted so desperately to be popular though. But she was friends with me instead. She was the only one I trusted, until the following year (which turned out to be a big mistake) to actually be my friend. The popular boys would make fun of me because they knew I liked one of them. They tormented me by making me think they actually liked me, and then would throw it in my face and laugh at me. A common theme throughout my life. One of the popular boys said he wanted my cast when I was done with it. I knew he was trying to fuck with me, so I kept it when they cut it off and left it in his locker. I can tell you, this did nothing to help me in the popularity department.

Popularity is Overrated

The reason I tell the story about having a cast on my leg is because when I went to Shriner’s for my consult shortly after that, there was confusion as to whether a procedure had already been done since I was wearing a cast. I had to explain no, I’m just a klutz and broke my foot during PE. That is indicative of my entire life, not being athletic. Always picked last for any team if it involved physical activity, I was the epitome of geeky awkwardness (I still tend to think that I am.) I almost didn’t graduate high school because of not having enough credits in Physical Education. I was wearing black PVC platform shoes at school (because I worked at Hot Topic as a teenager and wore my work clothes to school) and my weak ankle gave out and gave way to a severe sprain that kept me out of gym for long enough to lose it as a credit for the semester. There weren’t enough days left to “walk it off” after school, so my high school principal had to call a meeting with my parents and all my teachers to address how I was “failing school.” I was a mostly A & B student, with a few ‘H’ for honors classes which were graded as a 5.0 on a 4.0 scale and given college credit. But I was failing school and wasn’t going to graduate because I wasn’t a physical specimen that could just take an extra gym class to make up the credit. Most of the staff of my high school hated me as almost as much as the staff of my grade school. I was going to miss my graduation and all the graduate activities, make up the credit in summer school, and get my diploma mailed to me after the summer, or get held back a year, fucking up my FAFSA application and college admissions. So my dad had the bright idea during the meeting to have me write a paper about ankle injuries and physical therapy. At the time he was taking community college classes to become a physical therapist, inspired by the orthopedic nightmare of my life. He never went anywhere with that pursuit, but I knew what he was getting at. We walked out of the doors of my school and I said “you’re going to write that paper for me, aren’t you, Dad?” My mom said no, and I was going to help him. He told me I was going to write the bibliography for the citations. I said fair.

Going back to before high school, I had leg surgery the summer between sixth and seventh grade just after I turned 12. It was the first surgery I could remember, being that the one I had when I was three years old for two hernias that had gone undiscovered since birth until then, was a distant memory. I had to stay overnight in the hospital again, which was scary. I don’t know how long I was there, probably just a few days, but it seemed like weeks. The surgery was a bi-lateral heel cord lengthening, and you can still see the long scars on the backs of both my calves from it. By the time anyone figured out that I was not actually going to “grow out of it” my tendons had grown too short for me to actually stand flat on my feet. I couldn’t touch my toes, it was physically impossible. I failed the “President’s Physical Fitness Test” not for being grossly underweight or non-athletic,  but for having a physical disability that no one believed I had. Because of that disability, and my low weight, and my poor ocular genetics, my being intelligent, and probably some other reasons pertaining to my awkward personality, I was the target of bullying from children and adults growing up. It made it very difficult to trust anyone, because I learned the hard way that sometimes people are your friend because they want something from you, and sometimes they pretend to be your friend to simply expose your naivety at thinking anyone would actually want you as a friend, for their own amusement.  Those people were almost exclusively the self-proclaimed popular people. Or they were the people on a lower social rung, that hoped by kicking the outcast while she’s down would gain popularity points with those who would be doling them out. So, in my opinion, popularity is overrated.

Learning How to Walk Again

Before this most recent foot surgery, which was promised to me as being a breeze compared to the last, and has so far delivered, I would say that I’ve learned how to walk three times now. The first time, as a baby; after my heel cord lengthening, as a teenager; and after my first bunion surgery, as an adult. I don’t expect to have to learn to “re-walk” this time, since this is a far less invasive procedure than the last, but I will have to learn to re-balance, again. The surgery from the x-rays shown earlier took quite a bit of my foot away, hence the callous that has grown in its place. I had to learn how to walk again with a completely differently shaped foot than I was used to. With my leg surgery, it was even more intense. I was in plaster casts from below the knee, to the first knuckle of my toes, for three months. I walked with crutches everywhere, but I still had to go to school. Still had to have people carry my books for me so they could leave class early and pretend to be my friend. After that, I had to go under anesthesia again to get my casts changed. They didn’t want the trauma and pain of having me awake while they examined and moved my still-tender legs, so it was just easier as a child to knock me out. Going back to that thing of not having adults believe you, when I had my casts changed and was asked how I felt, for days afterwards (and to a lesser extent, a couple of weeks) I could feel and taste the anesthesia in my lungs when I breathed. They told me that wasn’t a thing. I later read that going under general anesthesia multiple times close together can trigger a depressive episode. That combined with a major life change, my parents’ divorce, and moving from our childhood home could have all contributed to the self-destruct button being woken in my brain.

I hated the color pink with a passion. I don’t anymore, and subscribe to the “pinks and goths get along” thing now. Not when I was a thirteen year old. I was convinced pink was the color of popular, the color of bullies, the color or my oppression. The doctor ran out of purple fiberglass while I was knocked out, so they figured hot pink would be fine and I woke up to the horror of having hot pink casts for the next three months. New round of casts, new round of everyone wanting to sign and draw on them and certain people fucking with me about leaving a cast in their locker because I called them on their asshole bluff. It was even worse when I was in leg braces after I was finally done with casts. I picked out the translucent nude color plastic, so it would blend in with my skin and be the least noticeable as possible. Some fucking adult somewhere, saw my hot pink casts, and thought I didn’t want the boring ol’ skin tone ones and that my plastic leg braces should be HOT. PINK. I cried. They said it was too late and they were already made custom to my legs and I couldn’t change the color. You can’t even imagine what it’s like having a neon sign painted on your broken body parts screaming “look at me, I’m disabled!!!!” I even got made fun of once for them because bumping the velcro straps that held them against my shins at the top sounded like me opening up a maxi pad in the bathroom, and the other teenage girls made fun of me because I wasn’t using tampons, so that must mean I was still a virgin. A virgin in grade school?! The horror!! I did, in fact, use tampons. Not that they would believe me when I told them that. But apparently they all had boyfriends and had been having sex. (No they hadn’t, it was a lie.) But it was very demoralizing for me, and I felt like I was so ugly and broken because no one wanted to have sex with an awkward, four eyed, skin-and-bones, handicapped nerd.

Once I was in physical therapy, my grandma would pick me up from school and take me to the doctor. The first time I convinced her I didn’t have to go back after PT. She got in trouble with my mom and mad at me for lying to her. I really wanted to be in that place with those people as little as possible, so you can’t blame me for trying. *shrugs* The physical therapy after being in casts for six months and having brand new legs and learning how to walk again was horrifically painful. I the stretches I had to do to make sure my heel cords stayed nice and lengthened were fraught with crying and met with resistance. My parents are amazing for having put me through all of that, knowing that it hurt me but that it was also helping me. When I was in the hospital recovering I played wheelchair basketball with some other kids, and I was so grateful that I could actually walk again when the time came. Graduating from a wheelchair, to a walker, to crutches, to leg braces to finally bare legs was humbling. But for 2/3 of the school year in seventh grade my legs were goddamn hot pink. People wanted to beat me up more than ever. There was one time on the parking lot after school that year a girl, Jamie, had her fist held over my head about to come down on me hard when she was interrupted by a teacher who happened upon the scene. I was so terrified of this…jock popular girl. If you somehow ever happen upon this blog post Jamie, and actually read this far, I hope you feel fucking terrible about what I’m about to say next. This bully who had tormented me almost my whole life, saw me the next year walking normally, no leg braces, and wanted to be my friend. Wanted me to be her science fair partner. Wanted me to hang out with her. It was the most shallow thing I’d ever experienced in my measly 13 years on earth, but I learned exactly how horrible people can be.

One More Thing…

I have to tell you about the rooster. I was still wearing my leg braces the first part of the summer, and we went to visit my mom’s best friend and her husband at their house out by the Big River. Nice piece of land, very steep hill directly down to the river with nothing but a piece of pipe for a railing. See, they had chickens, but the coop had washed away in the flood of ’93, and this was only two years later. So the chickens and rooster lived in their house. They just kinda wandered around the property during the day and then slept in the rafters of the big cabin-like house at night. Well roosters hate the color red. Or any variation apparently. The rooster absolutely did not like my hot pink leg braces and proceeded to chase after me screaming through the yard where I almost ended up falling down the hill into the river, but thankfully Julie’s husband intervened and punted the fowl away from me. I don’t think the rooster knew I hated those braces just as much as he did.

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