“As you can see, I’m a bit proximal. How am I now? Oooh, a little distal now. Okay, back a little. Perfect.”
My doctor is injecting my stage-two hallux rigidus, otherwise known as “Stiff Big Toe.” I have shaved off my stray, black, metatarsal bone hairs and conducted a rather rigorous pedicure, yet I still feel like a variation of Bigfoot, otherwise known as Sasquatch, the cryptic ape who may or may not inhabit our forests.
Lucky I groomed because I am suddenly on display; an educational instrument of sorts. Two overly ambitious trainees are hovering over my inflamed joints, excited to see some cortisone action. They never actually look at my face, because clearly my deformed toes hold more medical ambiguities. After the poke, one of them performs the most strategic Band-Aid job I’ve ever seen and the other scribbles vehemently in his notepad. It must be an exceptional injection.
This is probably my fifth time receiving a cortisone injection, and each time it becomes more and more painful. Yet, when compared to fusing all my bones together or getting an artificial joint, a cortisone shot seems as delightful as the movie Chocolat. Every time I see a new doctor, I always hear the same thing: “You’re so young to have arthritis.” And every time I’m like, “Well, it’s happening.” And then we both shrug and someone suggests cortisone.
It’s a minor issue, they say. You have plenty of time to “consider your options.” I mean, maybe they’re right. How bad is it anyway? My joint is only the size of a tennis ball and only the color of Jupiter’s red storm. I only have to modify seventy percent of yoga poses, and when I wear high heels my toe is only frozen in an upward position for 30 minutes until I massage, ice and soak it in Epsom salts. And my co-workers only make fun of my gait sometimes. (Apparently I walk on the outer edges of my feet, and each time I stride forward my Tibia and Fibula — basically everything from the knee down — swing out to the side and around, making me look like a drunken marionette avoiding sidewalk cracks.)
So, definitely minor.
But as minor as it seems on the medical scale, it has proven to be a behemoth of inconvenience on my life’s scale, which for the purpose of this diatribe let’s pretend is more important than the medical scale. As a wide-eyed freshman in college I was suddenly faced with severe pain and an onslaught of wild medical speculations including Plantar fasciitis, Metatarsalgia, Bunions, Degenerative Arthritis and Hammer Toe. After 15 years of training, I had never envisioned anything other than a dance career. But my twinkling tutu dreams came screeching to a halt as I found myself in the offices of wiry-haired doctors who wore wiry-rimmed glasses, all atop Big Stiff Noses as they pontificated about Big Stiff Toe-es. Holy Moses. Everything was NOT turnin’ up roses….
Next thing I knew, I was staring at a jagged, Frankensteinian scar stretched across the length of my metatarsophalangeal joint, crying about the sheer helplessness of my previously strong foot, the one that had spent numerous years crammed into a wooden pointe-shoe box, fighting blisters and coping dutifully as it endured ninety percent of my body’s weight as I spun, leapt, pivoted and relevéd.
One day, I observed a modern class because I was too injured to participate. In fact, I was out for the semester but had been too late to withdraw, so the teachers made one of those diplomatic, yet pretentious decisions of the academia type to let me participate through observations and earn a grade based on the quality of my observations. I sat there watching my fellow classmates roll around on the marley floors, and it smelt of sweaty feet, and my zany teacher introduced the impact a flexed foot can make on choreography, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I was about to unleash my full-fledged despair and misery on a handful of unaware 19-year-olds. It was as though this injury had aged me a decade and catapulted me past adolescence into a transcendent state of acumen. Suddenly they all looked too healthy, too naïve, too unaware. The world had not yet left a mark on them. And watching these perfectly healthy, youthful spirits learn about flexed feet sent waves of jealousy through me, and I didn’t understand why I had been chosen to suffer the plight of Stiff Big Toe.
Flash forward eight years and it’s still part of my life. But instead of this massive, intrusive, devilish thing that ruined my dance career, I have slowly and begrudgingly come to see the diagnosis as a turning point. I went from being one of those “too healthy, too naïve, too unaware” spirits, to a tainted, but slightly more seasoned student of life. Yes, my trajectory post-injury was quite frightful at first — I went through a phase of buying only black bedding, listening only to Coldplay, eating only tuna from the can and seeing only the grim, desolate, preposterous parts of this big, bad world. But then, as though emerging from the depths of icy water, I found other things. Bright things, fun things, provoking things, stimulating, intriguing, beguiling, mysterious, rewarding, valuable things—and they were all outside of the dance studio, outside of the only world I thought mattered.
As grim as this may sound, injuries are an opportunity for growth. Sitting here hearing about my Stiff Big Toe is forcing me to rethink my abilities and find new routes, both physically and mentally. Through rehabilitation and yoga, I will figure out how to shift weight and maneuver myself so as to stay active in my daily life. Through observation, learning and trying new activities, I will find that dance is NOT my only option in life. It will be a rejiggering of Herculean proportions, but it will build character and force me out of my comfort zone.
So, to those of you who have some pain, get a cortisone shot, watch the movie Chocolat and just know that behemoths of inconvenience can transform you…
…It might take eight years. And involve lots of canned tuna.