“Best decision I ever made” was what I said when I ingeniously used a spatula to keep my shower curtain closed. I also say it every time I buy a slice of pizza. And I always say it whenever I choose the color pink. Now I look down at the short portion of my left arm that remains after I had most of it removed and say it too. That’s right: I had my left arm amputated several inches above the elbow nearly a year ago today and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.
I spent six years living with an arm that had zero motor function from the elbow to the fingertips after I was injured in a Vespa accident. Picture one of those inflatable T. rex costumes: The person wearing it knows the tail is there, but they keep knocking drinks over and tripping people nonetheless. When you’re aware of something but have absolutely no control over what it does, it’s time to Marie Kondo it. I had no guarantee life would be better as an amputee than it was with a paralyzed arm, but knew it was time to part with my arm as it sparked no joy.
Now, after I had my arm amputated in December 2021, there’s just 7 1/2 inches of my arm left, but it serves me much more than the full-length version. About two months post-op, I was already using it to hold objects ― something I could never do with my typical-size paralyzed arm. I wedge whatever I need to in my armpit and use my little limb to secure it. It feels as natural to me as if I were using my now-gone hand. And rest assured, I almost always wear deodorant.
I’d forgotten how useful it was to have two “hands” to hold things with. With the weight of my arm pre-op, it was hard for me to secure objects using my upper arm, so I primarily relied on my right hand. Post-amputation, my left arm’s length is small, but it’s mighty ― and just long enough to reach the back of my head. This means I can even put my hair up without asking my grumpy neighbor for help.
Transitioning from an invisible to a visible disability eased much of the tension associated with sometimes needing assistance. I used to dread asking anyone, because although my left arm was severely impaired, the most mismatched thing about me was my socks. I looked relatively “normal.” My two equal-size and deceptively perfect-seeming arms always required an explanation as to why I needed help doing something ― especially if it was something as uncomplicated as pressing the elevator button when my only (functional) hand was full. The other day I got stuck, unable to zip the side zipper on my skort while in a public restroom. With zero embarrassment or explanations required, I asked the woman washing her hands beside me, “Help, please.” Inner crisis averted, I walked out with my pants up and my “My Little Pony” undies a secret — phew.
My confidence increased after the amputation. As soon as I woke up from surgery, I FaceTimed a friend and laid down the truth for her: “I look good with one arm.” As I danced in my hospital bed dressed in an oversize Lady Gaga tee and wearing one sock, my mom worried the pain meds might be responsible for my new mindset. Since the medication wore off, I’ve changed my tee a few times and put on a second sock, but I can’t say that my views on my personal image have shifted. I look in the mirror and like what I see — I look familiar again. And I feel most beautiful when I look and feel like myself.
Aesthetically, it doesn’t matter how many arms I have. For me, it was about having agency over what my own disability could bring me. Disability innately robs you of bodily autonomy. Here I had something I could do to let me choose how I wanted to live my battle. So far, I haven’t tried to cover this arm up once.
On the contrary, this summer, I thrived in tank tops, proud of how animated this little arm is now. I’m an Italian who can finally talk with “both” hands. When I’m out with friends and holding a drink, I can keep up with the conversation with my personality on full throttle. To outsiders, it likely looks like I’m flagging down a race car as I swish my short, unbending arm up and down.
I expected to have new ― and many more ― gazes on me than I had when I was living with two typical-size arms, but I chose to embrace these looks and stares. I’ve technically had “one arm” for these past seven years, but for the six pre-amputation, I was concealing a genuine part of me. Now I’m not.
The first time someone audibly noted my appearance was at Target shortly after surgery. A tween girl passed me and loud-whispered to her mom, “I feel bad for that girl ― she’s missing an arm.” I wanted her to understand that, in my specific case, it wasn’t something to regret, so I did a double take, went up to her, and calmly explained that it was nothing to feel bad about.
“I feel happier now,” I told her. “When I had two arms, I felt trapped by the one that got injured and didn’t work. Now I’m not missing an arm. I have one arm, which is so much more.” Putting it into four concise sentences felt positive to me. Still, her mother couldn’t have run away any faster, apologizing profusely as she disappeared ― aptly, perhaps ― behind the horror books aisle. Oh well, I tried.
Although I can’t control how anyone else will see me, what’s most important is how I see myself. My arm isn’t “missing” and I didn’t “lose” it. It was strategically removed so I could function better. Now, in bed, I don’t need to place a lifeless arm out of the way every time I move. In the morning, I wake up and get dressed, independently putting each arm through my T-shirt sleeves without needing to guide the left one through with my right. I then sit down for coffee and nestle my little arm on the table, knowing my grandmother would be proud as she always reminded me, “No elbows on the table.” I love a good loophole.
These were the changes I’d hoped for, but I also knew there’d be some unexpected results as well. Among the satirically unforeseen rewards was half-off double palm readings. I’m also saving a ton of space on mittens. No one steals my sweatshirts at the pool since I’ve chopped the left sleeve off of most of them. And I’m constantly using my little arm to offer countersupport while doing household tasks. I wouldn’t recommend trying this at home, but last week I used it to hold down a mango while I peeled it. My T-shirt sleeve was ruined, but that’s a small price to pay for being able to finally do things on my own again.
As we close in on one-year post-op, I can honestly say I’d decide to amputate my arm all over again if given the chance — and that’s precisely what I’m going to do.
This year, my left arm actually started growing back. “Like a lizard?” I asked my doctor, borderline excited that I really might be part T. rex. No, not exactly, it turns out. While I won’t regrow an elbow, forearm or hand, my arm bone has virtually rebuilt itself. My humerus is now visible just beneath the skin ― about an inch and a half past where it ended a year ago. The pain I’m experiencing is somewhat akin to what I imagine Harry Potter must have felt after his professor made the bones in his arm disappear and he had to regrow them. Every morning I wake up and look down to see if there’s a hand or if the bone has finally made its way past the wispy layer keeping it in. Thankfully, it hasn’t ― I’ve gotten too used to my freedom, range of motion, and half-priced manicures. So, in light of this ironic setback, come Friday, I’ll be having my left arm cut off again. And I couldn’t be happier about it.
Chloé Valentine Toscano is working on an essay collection titled Punk Rock Amputee. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, NBC, them., Allure, Wired, Salon and more. Follow her on instagram @chloevalentinetoscano or visit her website www.chloevalentinewrites.com.