My kneecaps are both resting in their proper place, perfectly in the groove where they’re supposed to live and glide and move. This has never been true, at least not since I was 10. Every year, 6 out of every 100,000 people in the US dislocate their kneecaps. For the past 24 years, I’ve been one of those six, every single year.
My friends know my knees have been a pain for me, literally. I worked for a summer camp program in Florida when I was 16. My co-workers watched my right kneecap dislocate, positioning itself on the outer side of my right leg until I tapped it to pop it back in place. (I apologize to you, queasy readers, but please hang in here. I promise to keep the graphic details as few as possible.) It happened again later that week. It happened again at swim practice a few months later, and again and again and again until my coach and I decided that I would only do flip turns in actual meets until my knees were better. That helped, because as a long-distance swimmer who regularly swam the 500m race, I had lots of flip turns.
Physical therapy helped too. My orthopedic doctor then didn’t consider surgery for two reasons. First, he was kind of a jerk to me, barely listening to my concerns and mocking me for saying that my knees dislocated instead of that my kneecaps did. Second and more importantly, I didn’t tell him the whole story because, even if I had trusted him, my mom was in the room.
The dislocations continued, every year, multiple times a year. I worked hard on keeping my quads strong uniformly so the muscles could hold the kneecap in place. That helped some. In college, my unstable knees helped me tread water more effectively as the goalie for UNC’s water polo team. My wonky anatomy never gave me an advantage any other time, but it was nice to get one benefit out of a lot of agony.
When Jocie was 4 and Robbie 2, my right knee started locking up. I hurt all the time, but sometimes I couldn’t even get my knee to bend. Even if I held still, the pain was overwhelming. I found a new orthopedic knee specialist who came highly recommended. We did a minor arthroscopic knee surgery just one week before my youngest child was born.
I wasn’t pregnant then, to be clear. She was being born on the other side of the world in a clinic in Taiwan where her first mother decided to place her for adoption. We’d find out about her a few months later, but that’s a whole ‘nother story for another time.
The surgery didn’t work. I mean, it helped, but my kneecap still slid out of place. Basically, it didn’t know how to stay in place. By my best guess, my kneecaps have dislocated at least 125 times. By the time I returned to Dr. Barker last spring, both of my kneecaps permanently rested out of place, not quite dislocated but far from being in place. Subluxed is the medical term. But in my opinion, you might as well say they were dislocated, because I felt pain whether they were partially dislocated – that is, subluxed – or fully dislocated. I felt so much pain in my knees so often that I barely noticed it anymore. It was background static to my life.
Dr. Barker offered a surgical option that he said would be best but that I needed to know had a serious recovery protocol. He knows me. He knows I have six young kids. He knew six weeks on crutches, minimum, after each knee’s surgery was a huge ask, especially when that also meant a minimum of six weeks not driving after the right leg and two weeks after the left one. Thinking it would be way too much to consider, I asked him to explain what it would entail. No one likes to hear about cutting bones and screwing them back into a better aligned location – aka tibial tubercle osteotomy – or reconstructing a ligament using a cadaver graft, which would also involve drilling into the side of my kneecaps in two places and my femur (that is, thigh bone) in one place.
None of it sounded fun, but I knew this offered a possibility of something I had never imagined, stable knees. I said yes. He did it all, plus a little more arthroscopically. I was left with three small, two medium, and one large scar afterward, as well as some new hardware and new-to-me tissue in my knee.
That’s the intense surgery – done twice, once on each knee, the right in March and the left in September – that has my knees resting in place for the first time I can remember. By the end of 2017, I will have spent four months on crutches and some time, on and off, in my manual wheelchair. During that same amount of time, I have been required to rest a lot, which has been hard in a year in which I’d prefer to rest less and do more so I could distract from the news cycle any given week.
But here I am, almost on the other side. Sure, my surgeon says I need to stay on crutches a few weeks longer this time because the bone they cut hasn’t healed fully yet, but that feels like nothing. I'll keep up with physical therapy for another few months. I might need more surgeries in the future, but I’m good for now. My knees feel healed. My kneecaps are in place. Pain that I didn’t even notice anymore is now gone.
I wish I could go back and tell 11-year-old me that this day would come. I wish I could tell her healing is possible. I wish, as her kneecaps were dislocated the first time as her knees were forcibly spread just prior to yet another middle-of-the-night rape by a male family member, she could have known that life would get better. I wish I could rescue her as that same scenario, more often with dislocations than not, played out far too many of her middle school nights. I wish I could go back in time, put him in prison like he should be, get little me the medical care I deserved, and expose our parents’ negligence and abuse that allowed it to happen in the first place. I wish I could smash their one idol, being seen as the perfect family, and the altar to that god on which they sacrificed their little girl. I wish they had cared more about me than their own public image.
I’m not sharing this to draw attention to my pain. I’m not fishing for the empathy I should have gotten back then. No, I’m sharing this because it’s true.
I’m sharing this because a couple weeks ago, I got to see perfectly aligned kneecaps in an x-ray of mine for the first time ever. I’m sharing this because sometimes the darkness feels like it will never lift. I’m sharing this because I’m living proof that the light can break through one day. I’m sharing this because, in the words of John 1:5, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (In the long term, at least. The darkness pressed in with little perceivable light at times for me.)
Even more so, I’m sharing this because domestic violence is too common. I’m sharing this because the pain of rape doesn’t expire. I’m sharing this people still say things like “isn’t it time to move on?” and “how is something that happened so long ago a big deal anymore?” I’m sharing this because people ask why survivors don’t speak up sooner, when the reality all too often is that we’re tending to our own wounds. I’m sharing this because there should be no statute of limitations on sexual violence because there’s no statute of limitations on how it impacts the lives of survivors afterward. (We are not ruined, though. Never ruined.) I’m sharing this because I’m one of the lucky ones who could still go to the cops at any point, because in Florida, where I grew up, there is no statute of limitations on the rape of a child younger than 12 by a perpetrator older than 18. I’m sharing this because we choose far too often to look away from the pain of this world, and that’s how countless adults missed the signs that I was living through hell. I’m sharing to challenge us all to pay better attention.
Furthermore, I’m sharing this because no one knew for far too long. I’m sharing because you’ll encounter other people today. I’m sharing because we can never know the darkness others have survived. I’m sharing because you might have been more gentle with me at times if you knew what I was dealing with, right? I’m sharing because we can offer that same gentleness and grace to others without having to visit their dark spaces and know their secret pain.
Go forth, my friends, with perfect knees or imperfect ones or no knees at all. Care. You don’t have to know the stories. You don’t have to look for a #metoo post. You don’t have to know the details. You can simply know that we all have felt pain, we all deserve healing, and we all can offer grace.
Amen. Let it be.
I’m not the only survivor who will be on the trip. Our stories matter. Our stories are important. And, God willing, our stories may influence change so that the stories of others might be different from our own. With him, we are writing new endings for ourselves and, hopefully, for more than just us.