I own a pair of crutches. I keep them in the hallway closet where I can grab them if I need them . . . because every so often I will. I have a knee condition where my kneecaps naturally dislocate. I can move my kneecaps with my hand, or they will naturally dislocate in a regular rhythmic way. It doesn’t hurt. But when one dislocates outside of that rhythm, I collapse. I fall to the ground, grasping my knee, shouting expletives as tears come to my eyes.
My kneecap will move back into place automatically, but the unexpected offbeat shift is painful. It is then that I use crutches. The crutches don’t prevent my kneecap from dislocating. The crutches let my knee rest so it can heal.
It took me years to understand this.
I was 8 years old when I first learned of this condition. The orthopedic surgeon told me that nothing could be done to cure me. Surgery would not significantly change anything. Instead, he tried to teach me about my knees. He told me that there were certain activities that aggravated the condition: roller-skating, running, tennis. Things I loved to do. And there were other activities that would strengthen the ligaments around my knees: bicycling, swimming. Things I did not know how to do. He prescribed physical therapy where I would learn exercises that would strengthen the muscles that my legs don’t naturally develop.
I went to physical therapy, but I refused to stop skating and running. In fact, I wrapped my knees in braces and ACE bandages just so I could run track in high school. I preferred the pain of the dislocation to learning new sports.
I can barely believe how stubborn I was. I think part of that was determination. I didn’t think my knee condition should stop me from doing the things that brought me joy. I think the other part was attitude. I didn’t think of myself as having “bad knees.” I just thought that they were different. “Different” meant that I would have to make a couple adjustments. After all, they were the only knees I’d every known.
At a family reunion years later, I saw a great uncle moving his kneecaps around his knee like I could. The younger children sat around amazed. I tugged my mother’s shirt and said, “See, like ME!”
The older I got, the more sensitive my knees became. Running became too painful. The roller-rink, a memory for the 80s. A particular dislocating episode sent me to a physical therapist who told me that I had to learn how to walk again. She watched my kneecaps move side to side, above and out of the groove in which they should lay, and said: “You can’t keep walking like that.”
Wish someone had told me that when I was eight. At twenty-something, it was pretty difficult to learn a new way to do something so ordinary. She also showed me how to tape my knees into place while I was re-learning my daily activity.
The crutches are for more severe incidents. When my kneecap dislocates and causes great pain, I use the crutches. I rest and apply ice and elevate and wrap my knee in bandages. My kneecap moves back into place, but the pain and weakness can last for weeks. One time, the pain lasted for three months.
At first, I was grateful for the crutches that took the pressure off my aching leg. Before long, I was pouty! I wanted to dance and wear heels and go to the gym. There I would be – in the gym, with bandages and crutches, trying to lift weights. My new orthopedic surgeon forbade it.
“After it stops hurting, use the crutches for another month.
You have to rest in order to heal.”
It took me years to understand my depressive condition in the same way I understand my knees. I saw the association in a series of questions:
- Perhaps, there’s nothing wrong with me? Maybe I’m just different.
(After all, this is the only me that I’ve got.)
- Perhaps there are other people in my family who can relate to what I’m experiencing?
- What if I avoided the people and activities and practices that aggravate my condition?
- What if I did things that made me strong?
- Even if it doesn’t happen naturally?
- Can I learn something new that will help me?
- Even if it’s so basic that I feel like I’m starting over again as a child?
- Maybe a therapist can give me something that can hold me together while I’m learning?
This curious comparison led me to three conclusions that have been important for me:
- 1. A depressive condition will not stop me from doing things that I enjoy.
- 2. It’s not about a cure, but about making adjustments.
- 3. Medication is not a sign of weakness. It’s a crutch that will let me rest so I can heal.
These realizations changed both my life and my faith. With my knees, it was easy to forget how much faith I engaged. I trusted the crutches to hold me up when I wasn’t strong enough to do it for myself.
This kind of faith feels much harder with a mental health challenge. I need to trust various practices and medications and people. I need to trust that they will support me when I feel weak.
This is the opposite of a lot of what I’ve been taught about fortitude and faith:
You have to believe for yourself.
You can’t get by on your Mama’s salvation.
If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.
This solo-mission Energizer-Bunny stuff was not Jesus’ way. Jesus often retreated from ministry and crowds to rest. In the last, most difficult days of his life, holy texts remind us that Jesus needed support. He asked his friends to sit with him and pray through a torturous night (Matthew 26:36-44). One friend carried the cross for him when he was tired (Mark 15:21-22). Another person offered vinegar while he hung on the cross (Matthew 27:48).
Rest. Help. Community. Support. Crutch.
What would it mean to think of Jesus with crutches?
Does that make him weak?
For some people, a crutch is an excuse not to walk on one’s own. Because of my knees, I know that crutches are the exact opposite. They are the instruments that allow me to function in the world.
We all need to rest sometimes.
We all need undergirding.
It’s really the only way to heal.