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Why I Don't Regret Throwing My Leg Brace in the Back of My Closet

As a little girl, my AFO (Ankle Foot Orthotic) brace was on my left leg almost all day long. Every few months while I was growing, I’d get fitted for a new one, excited to choose what pattern I was going to have imprinted on the brace. If I remember correctly, they ranged from jungle animals to butterflies and even “The Flintstones” characters.

At age 7, with the permission of my doctor and support of my parents, I was able to stop wearing my brace. Frankly, much of the decision was made because of the impact it had on my self-esteem. I didn’t want to feel different in school, and I didn’t want to answer questions. My surgeon, sweet old soul that he was, decided it had probably taken me as far as I could go, and that with regular PT, I could be more effectively strengthening and stretching my weak muscles. My leg was also visibly atrophied, because I couldn’t engage my calf muscles while in the AFO. The first thing we cheered about? “No more buying two different pairs of sneakers!” For years, my mom was forced to buy my left foot’s shoe one size larger due to the clunkiness of the AFO.

High school brought on a whole host of issues for me, most having to do with accepting the fact that CP will be a part of me for the rest of my life. I was very insecure about the way I was walking, and willing to do anything to help my gait improve. Because I’m technically only treated for monoplegic CP, we didn’t focus on a ton of interventions throughout my preteen and teen years. It was a blessing and frustration all wrapped into one.

Annie wearing her leg brace as a child.
Annie wearing her leg brace as a child.

At a routine appointment when I was 17, my neurologist asked if I was willing to be re-fitted for a new, short AFO, as he knew that my leg issues were affecting my mood and confidence. To be honest, I was excited! I went home feeling like I had hope to improve physically, thankful that a doctor could give me that chance. I spent lots of time figuring out the best way to conceal the brace when I wanted, as well as show it off with pride. I even put a sparkly green awareness ribbon on the outside, because who wouldn’t want to spread CP awareness?

I wore the brace pretty religiously for about 6 months, and I felt a difference in my gait at first. AFOs work by keeping the foot in a neutral position. I wasn’t dragging my foot anymore, so tripping began to happen less and less. But with all this came the reality of today’s orthotics:

– I could only wear it with sneakers, so I often felt as if the aesthetic of a cute outfit was being thrown off by a pair of running shoes. I felt like I had to sacrifice feeling pretty and feminine because of the clunky white thing on my ankle.

– A brace must be worn with thick socks to prevent it rubbing against your skin, so this made the summer months rather annoying. It was hot! I would often take off the AFO at the end of the day and find it covered in sweat.

— I loved walking with my brace on to feel my gait improve. I didn’t love taking off my sneakers to find blisters on my foot the size of Texas. After having it re-fitted twice by multiple pros, the blisters didn’t subside. Every step I took was painful.

The CP and orthotics community has made strides to increase quality of life, fashion, and improve ease of wear for kids these days, but we still have a long way to go. I’d love to be at the forefront of that campaign!

At a certain point I had to ask myself, was my brace really worth it?

My answer was no.

As I’ve navigated my young adult years, I’ve had plenty of epiphanies. This one hit me like a train…

Finding my confidence through embracing my left left leg in all of its skinny, slightly atrophied entirety and letting my limp show, well, that’s all part of my story. And it helps me feel SO much more beautiful inside and out than I would by hiding it with a brace. If I can’t embrace these flaws and learn to love them in their realest state, what kind of life am I living?

To all the kids out there who may be tackling the ups and downs with orthotics, keep going!  I will never dispute that they did help me become stronger throughout childhood. My brace was the reason I started walking! Trust your parents and doctors. But after a certain age, they took me as far as I needed to go.  So when you have that moment of feeling like you’d rather just wear cute shoes instead, go with it.

And if and when the time comes, don’t be afraid to throw your brace in the back of your closet for good. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.