When I was 7 years old, I wanted a broken leg. I fantasized about hobbling into Wentzville West Elementary School, proudly swinging my crutches through the halls. And that wasn’t all. I also wanted a sprained ankle, broken collarbone, impaired vision, fractured wrist. If it was a handicap, you can bet it was on my first-grade wishlist.
This is one of those weirdly uncomfortable childhood memories I remember and then quickly try to forget. After all, the alternative is facing the frightening possibility I’ve been living as an undiagnosed sociopath for 26 years, and I just don’t have the stomach for that. But in a moment of vulnerability, during a work meeting where we were talking about childhood bike accidents instead of, well, work, I let my twisted little secret slip.
“I was really jealous of the crutches kid growing up,” I blurted to a room of fellow over-sharers (read: writers). My non-sequitur lingered in the air for what felt like minutes.
“Me too!” they all said finally in unison. For the next half hour, we traded stories of broken arm fantasies the way we traded Pokemon cards as kids.
“My best friend broke her wrist over the summer and showed up the first day of first grade with a cast,” one person said. “I remember thinking it was so cool.”
Another co-worker admitted she would tie a rope across her swingset and “practice tightrope walking,” but fall purposefully, in hopes of breaking both legs. “I did this every day for like two weeks, falling from 10 feet in the air multiple times a day and I didn’t stop until my mom figured it out.”
Fascinated, I sought further validation on the Internet (I’m a writer, remember?). You’d be amazed at how quickly mommy blog comment threads light up when anyone posts a, “does your kid want crutches too?”post. Here are just a few comments on a mommy blog thread I found:
I felt a mix of validation and confusion—thank God I wasn’t a secret sociopath, but why was this a thing? Self-harm is scary, and the desire to feel pain is usually associated with the likes of Christian Grey. Surprisingly, there’s very little research on adolescent masochism. So I reached out to Dr. Jeri Dyson, MD, a DC-based adolescent physician and author who I hoped would explain our collective obsession with handicaps.
Instead of diagnosing us all with a twisted personality disorder, Dr. Dyson explained it comes from a natural need to be acknowledged, appreciated and accepted. She said children do not want to experience the physical pain of, say, a sprained ankle, but they do want to be loved. And what easier way to vie for attention than to have a physical injury or ailment?
Even thinking about that now makes me feel loved and important.
“Think about it,” she explained, “If you had a broken arm, you got that bright cast, and your whole class got to sign it.” She was right. I was jealous of Ashley B. and her pink cast that everyone flocked to sign.
As Dr. Jeri puts it, the unwell get “certain advantages.” That truth hit me with vivid memories of my mom treating me like Princess Diana when I was hurt. She made lasagna, propped up my pillows and didn’t yell at me for anything until I fully recouped. More than that, she’d brush my hair away and hold a cold washcloth to my forehead, humming “You Are My Sunshine” as I fell asleep. Even thinking about that now makes me feel loved and important.
Dr. Jeri said this same yearning for attention also explains why some teenagers want to get pregnant. Instead of thinking about the repercussions (you know, like, having to take care of a real life baby), children fixate solely on the benefit of feeling loved and needed by another human.
Dr. Jeri pointed out there can be situational triggers that bring on these, “wow, I could really use a broken ankle right now” feeling. For example, when an only child gets a new sibling, the parent now has an urgent focus on a newborn who’s dependent upon them for survival. This imbalance of attention can be quite a shock for some kids, leaving them unable to cope with the neglect. A child might display similar behavior if there’s a family member with a serious illness or handicap.
Maybe our late-night texts to the ex we know will end up hurting us is just our inner child secretly wanting a broken leg.
With all this insight to a child’s psyche, I had to ask: “How can parents avoid screwing their kids up (asking for a friend, of course)?”
Dr. Jeri said we all too often underestimate a child’s emotional capacity. “You can speak to them about serious things,”she said, “they’re very resilient, both emotionally and physically.”
From birth, we’ve literally been trained to feel we are the center of the world. Dr. Jeri explained how, as babies our parents do everything to appease us. They feed us when we whine, rock us to sleep—they even carry us around. It’s easy for a child to become attached to that dependency. It’s crucial that parents explain to their children that, although they are very important, they are part of an even bigger picture.
Children are only capable of considering the positive benefits without the negative repercussions. But as adults, we can’t fake a limp to get attention. Having experienced real physical pain, we now find other ways to satisfy the deep desire to feel acknowledged. Maybe our late-night texts to the ex we know will end up hurting us is just our inner child secretly wanting a broken leg. Much to my dismay, there’s no easy way to demand love and validation in the grown-up world.