I woke up in pain, a white hospital sheet covering my legs. I pulled back the sheet and I saw it: The lower half of my left leg was gone. I heaved a shaky sigh of relief.
It had taken 10 years to get to this point, beginning that day back in 2001, during my junior year at the University of Maryland in College Park, when a bunch of us tried out my friend's new motorized minibike. On my turn, someone snapped a photo. The flash blinded me, making me lose control as I hit a speed bump. I flew over the bike, which fell over and landed on my left foot.
I knew it was bad: Bone just above my ankle popped through the skin, and blood blisters formed all over my foot. I felt a distant pain, but a weird numbness made me realize I was in shock. I later learned I had broken bones in my ankle, leg, foot and big toe. Hours after, doctors operated, putting my foot back together with plates and screws.
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I spent the summer recovering at my parents' house in Michigan, and, come fall, I was back in school, hobbling around campus on crutches, my foot in a cast, using a wheelchair for longer distances. But my leg never fully healed; in fact, the pain kept getting worse. During that year, I saw dozens of doctors.
One, a sports doc, looked at my X-rays and with basically no emotion said, "This is bad. You'll be on pain meds for the rest of your life, which could damage your liver, and that could complicate your ability to carry a baby. Or, you could amputate."
I was stunned. I was 22, and I had things I wanted to do—swim, scuba dive, climb mountains—and I couldn't do them with one leg. I told him, "That's not an option." I left the office trembling. Just the idea of amputation was practically giving me an anxiety attack. I decided the doc was an extremist and tried to ignore his insane predictions.
And although I couldn't ignore the pain, I refused to let it ruin my 20s. I went to Belize and Guatemala to hike the Mayan ruins. I worked as a healing-arts therapist. I went dancing. In 2006, my boyfriend, Dave, and I moved to San Diego, and I started working at a program for at-risk inner-city kids. Life was good—at least when I was out.
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But the pain came with me. It lived deep in my ankle, like metal hammering at bone. On the go, I popped ibuprofen and used crutches or a cane. At home, I took prescription pain meds and spent hours icing and elevating my foot. I kept going to doctors; all of them promised they could help me with various cutting-edge techniques.
In the decade after the accident, I had 21 procedures, including reconstructive surgeries and office visits to scrape out stubborn, excruciating staph infections. Each time, I told myself I was on the mend, that my crushed foot would find a way to right itself. It didn't.
By the summer of 2008, I was emotionally and physically exhausted. The pain was winning. I was on heavy-duty meds all the time but still crippled by pain—a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10. I often called in sick; finally, after missing weeks of work, I quit my dream job.
That's when it really hit me: I was broken. I couldn't stop the agony, so I started to lose hope. Depression took over. I spent months in bed feeling empty. I didn't talk to my friends; I avoided my parents when they called.
And I felt incredibly guilty for ruining Dave's life. He'd already spent seven years supporting me. Now he came home from work every night to find me sobbing. "This is all there will ever be," I'd say. "We can't have kids if I can't get out of bed. We can't travel. This is it." His response was always the same: "I'm not going anywhere. I love you."
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Then, right before Christmas 2008, Dave proposed. He seemed to know we'd get through this. Planning our wedding was a happy distraction from my physical torture (though it didn't go away). I made phone calls and chose flowers and thought about something besides my misery. We got married in 2010, our family and friends around us, and I willed myself to dance that night. Then I went back to our hotel room, weeping. "I'm too young for this," I thought. "This is insane."
Maybe there was another way, I started to think soon after our wedding. My leg was worse than useless: It was destroying my life. That sports doctor's suggestion of amputation started to creep to the forefront of my thinking. We moved to Michigan to be near my parents, and one day I got the guts to Google "amputation." I found clips of Heather Mills doing Dancing With the Stars wearing a prosthesis; articles about amputee war vets doing Ironman events; and the Amputee Coalition and Amputee Empowerment Partners, two support groups. On the groups' message boards, some people said voluntary amputation was the best decision they'd ever made. Others said it had ruined their lives, which scared the hell out of me. But I kept reading.
At first, I didn't tell anyone what I was thinking—that would make it too real, and I worried people would think I was nuts. But when I finally told Dave, he seemed relieved: He could see that the idea reenergized me. I showed him pictures of prosthetic legs. When I had my accident, prosthetics were not great. But now, with so many limbs lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, more money has been spent on prosthetics research. They've become incredible: You can run, climb mountains, swim. I met with a surgeon and prosthetist and said I wanted to scuba dive and ski. "You can," they said. That was amazing.
Still, as excited as I felt about it some days, at other times I felt crazy even considering it. But then I thought about my future. Without my hobbled foot, I could get my life back. I could work, go out with my husband, have children. No more lying in bed all the time. No more doctors. No more pain.
I scheduled the surgery in spring 2011, but before I went through with it, I decided to go to an Amputee Coalition conference in Kansas City. I wheeled myself into the hotel, where hundreds of amputees had gathered. They were happy, laughing, drinking beer. There was a rock climbing wall; an area for gait training and running; "disabled" people doing able-bodied things. At that moment, a calm came over me and my hope skyrocketed. I knew I was going to be an amputee, and I was going to live an awesome life.
I went in for the surgery almost exactly 10 years after my accident. When I woke up, I was in horrible pain. I'd been on painkillers for so long, the hospital's meds didn't work like they should have. Still, I was happy. It was weird to see nothing below my left knee, but that space symbolized my soon-to-be absent pain.
Except it didn't go away—not entirely. I got another infection and needed more surgery. Then I developed neuromas (painful nerve growths). I couldn't wear my prosthesis for more than a couple of hours at a time. I started to slip back into depression. I worried that my biggest fear had come true: I cut off my leg and was still suffering. I lay awake nights, terrified I'd made the biggest mistake of my life.
Then, in March 2012, I had more surgery to remove the neuromas. This time, finally, it went as planned—no infection or out-of-control pain. I got fitted for a new prosthesis, a carbon fiber socket attached to a foot with a shell that looks like my skin. I was so excited that the very next day, I tried it out at an amputee event in Ann Arbor. I climbed to the top of a 45-foot rock wall, something I'd never done with two "real" legs. I was sore and swollen afterward—but happy.
It's hard to be an amputee; I won't sugarcoat it. But every day, I get more used to my prosthesis, and sometimes I even forget it's there. You might think I'd dread having strangers ask questions, but I don't mind—some of them are in a situation like I was, pre-amputation, and I can offer advice. Lately I've been mentoring new amputees and hosting amputee support groups, and it's allowed me to help people, which is what I've always loved to do. In some ways, I had an advantage: I had 10 years to come around to the idea of losing my leg. Most amputees, like those who lost limbs at the Boston Marathon this past spring, don't get the time to decide or mentally prepare.
The best part: I wake up every day with hope. Dave and I are talking about having a baby. Last winter, I skied for the first time in years. And guess what? I was great at it. I consider my prosthesis my "leg." The thing that was there before was just something that held me back. This piece of carbon and titanium has become more than the flesh and blood that it replaced. It's my badge of courage. It has set me free.
This article originally appeared on Self.com.