Hi, My Name is... Erin Ball

Photo by Jon Nicholls

Photo by Jon Nicholls

Written by Erin Ball, legacycircus.com, kingstoncircusarts.com, @erinballcircus

My story goes back a lot further than the time of my accident but that’s the book version…it’s so long and complicated that a short piece can’t do it justice. 

I will say that at the time of my accident, I was not in a great place. On the outside, I was running a business in a field that was and is a huge passion of mine but there were some things in my personal life that were not what I wanted them to be. I was performing and teaching circus arts which I consider to be a huge honour. I was in a relationship that was on its way out and we had quite a bad night. 

I went for a drive after a big fight. I often drove to clear my head. I also often walked in the woods to clear my head. The difference that night was that I was in a particularly unclear state of mind and it was winter. 

I live in Canada. It was March, 2014. It wasn’t THAT cold for Canada but I was not dressed to be out in the woods, alone, at night. My boots were not water proof. 

I had been driving for hours and I made a decision that instead of turning around to get gas, I parked in the middle of nowhere (it turned out to be a hunting camp though I didn’t know it at the time) and I got out of my car. I can’t remember if I left my phone in the car or if I just didn’t have service. 

I walked for awhile, through snow and puddles. It was quite swampy. My feet got wet. I sat down for awhile to think. I felt really stuck in my life and the woods seemed like a place where I could think and get clarity. I did…but it took a long time and it was quite the journey to get there. 

When I went to get up, I could not feel my feet. They were completely numb. I could not walk. So I crawled. I thought I knew where I was going but I had gotten completely turned around. I thought my car was just up ahead but the woods opened up to a clearing and around the edges, for as far as I could see, there were trees. That was when I knew I was in trouble. I screamed for help over and over but no one came. 

LEGacy Circus performing at the St John's International Circus Fest. Photo by Alick Tsui

LEGacy Circus performing at the St John's International Circus Fest. Photo by Alick Tsui

After that, I have only flashes of memories. I remember eating snow because I was so thirsty. I remember covering my hands with my coat and trying to get out of there. I remember hearing gun shots. 

And then I remember nothing. I was found unconscious, six days after I went into the woods. As I write this, it feels pretty surreal. People ask me all of the time how any of this is even possible. Many people believe that I was trying to commit suicide. I was not. At least not at that point. It was just a really messed up situation. I was messed up and this is what happened. 

A missing person’s report had gone out and someone had seen my car. A police dog had been sent out in the area and eventually I was found. I was later told that my boots were found nowhere near my body. I guess there is a condition that occurs when bodies get really cold…they think they are hot. 

It will be five years this March since I was pulled out of the woods with a body temperature of 19 degrees celsius. I was flown to the hospital by helicopter and my chest was opened up. Warm fluid was slowly put into my body and I was kept unconscious for a few days.

When I woke up, I was so confused. My body was incredibly swollen from the fluid and I couldn’t even sit up on my own. I remember hearing “we are not going to show her her feet just yet”. Eventually I saw them…purple and bloated. 

The next few weeks were a state of confusion for everyone. I was being told to try all kinds of conflicting things for my feet and eventually I was taken to another hospital for hyperbaric oxygen treatment but it was too late.

I came back to the Kingston hospital, where I stayed for a very long time. I was in a state of denial and mentally, I was having a break with reality. I was bounced back and forth between medical floors and mental health floors and not really given time or a place to grieve or process. 

2017 Photo by Michael East Photography

2017 Photo by Michael East Photography

In June 2014, I had both lower legs amputated. The frostbite line had been at my ankles and I was completely shocked when I woke up from surgery to have the least amount of lower leg remaining for a decent amount of mobility. That’s a whole other story but I will say that it should not have happened. 

I became very depressed. Movement and circus had been the positive things in my life and I thought they were over. My partner told me three days after surgery that he was done. That had been one thing that I had been hanging on to. I went into a catatonic state, basically giving up on life. 

To make a long story short, the hospital began giving me electric shock treatment to try to “fix me”. It was absolutely horrific and it erased my memory so I would relive losing my legs every time that I woke up. I was so angry. I hated that I needed a wheelchair and I only knew a negative view of disability due to stereotypes and ignorance (and I hated the word disabled…today I embrace it but more on that later).

At some point someone convinced my to try prosthetic legs and I did. I felt happy for a moment…I was standing. And then I saw myself in the mirror…two red sticks where my shins should have been. I couldn’t do it. I thought it was the ugliest thing I had ever seen. 

I shut down again. The hospital didn’t know what to do with me. I refused to take their medication because it was making me hear voices. They told my family that if they were not treating me, I would need to be released. My family knew that I was not ready for that and in an effort to try to stop it, they said I could not stay with them. The hospital released me to a homeless shelter without my parents knowledge. 

There I was…34 years old…alone, in a wheelchair at a homeless shelter. I had been a business owner and a circus artist. How did this happen?!?

I was devastated and I wanted to die. I asked someone to help me die and they said yes. Somehow, I did not die. My body shut down. I went back into a catatonic state. Today I think about it like a cocoon. I had not been given the time or place to grieve or process so I took it. I was brought back to the hospital via ambulance when I was unresponsive to the outside world. 
I stayed in the hospital, living the same day over and over, for months. I wanted to die but I wasn’t dying. Instead, it was back to electroshock therapy. They would restrain me, inject me with fluid that burned like nothing I have ever felt, I would scream, and then go unconscious. I would wake up and not even remember my name and then, I would slowly recall everything about my legs. It was a nightmare. Over and over. 

Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and I decided that I needed to do something. Nothing was changing so I had to make it happen. I decided to move my body. It had been almost 11 months of lying around in a hospital bed, eating horrible food (if I was eating) and I had lost all of my strength. I asked some people on the mental health floor if they would like to learn partner acrobatics and I taught them. I decided to try prosthetic legs again. 

I decided to live. And for me, that meant circus. I had no idea if it was even possible but it was my only option. I started going to physio to learn to walk. I relearned to walk as I relearned to fly. I taught myself the things that I used to do on aerial silks. It was awkward with heavy prosthetic legs but it gave me goals. 

I did my first performance (a very simple hula hoop routine) 30 days out of the hospital. It was like my official return. From that day, it was all forward. There were many hard times but nothing compared to the time in that first 11 months. It was all downhill from there. 

The 2018 Amputee Circus Camp show at Kingston Circus Arts. Photo by Michael East Photography

The 2018 Amputee Circus Camp show at Kingston Circus Arts. Photo by Michael East Photography

I regained my independence, I was training, I was even teaching again. It was like a clean slate for me. I was navigating the world without a map. I was creating everything from scratch and I put in only the things that I loved. I trained really hard for more than a year to rebuild my strength to perform in the air. 

In the process, I accepted my legs. In the beginning I tried to cover my legs with leg warmers. I didn’t want people to stare at me. My dad encouraged me to take them off during a performance and I never put them back on. That day a switch was flipped and I gained confidence in myself. I was ready to be in the world as myself. I could show my differences. I was terrified of everything but that was okay. I did it all anyway.

I started to explore circus without my prosthetic legs and I found freedom. I created new ways of doing things and found what worked for me. I started working with other amputees and other people in difference situations.

In the last few years, I have learned so much. I have met so many incredible people and I have had more amazing experiences than I can even believe. I learned about the social model of disability and today, I use that word proudly. Disability is a community. It is structures and systems that are in place that create problems, not our bodies and minds. Unlike the medical model, I do not believe that we need to be fixed. It is society that has created barriers and problems. We are magical, wonderful people and I am honoured to be a part of this. 

I no longer hate my wheelchair. I see it as a useful tool. It helps me. And I even perform with it. I put it in the air. I use in on the ground and do flips over it. 

Today my creativity flows. I used to have a hard time coming up with ideas for acts before my accident. Now there is not enough time for all of the ideas that I have. I have been lucky enough to perform and explore everything from shooting confetti cannons from my legs, coloured smoke grenades, aerial legs created specifically for me by an artist, zombies eating my legs, and so much more. 

I also get to travel all over and work with incredible people, sharing ideas, experiences and art. 

My life is very different and some days are hard. Some days I experience a lot of pain and some days are frustrating but I would not change it for anything. If I could have my feet back, I would say no. I feel like I only really started living after I got out of the hospital. 

Today I have my own circus studio where I teach adaptive and non-adaptive aerial and ground circus arts. I have a company called LEGacy Circus with Mad artist, Vanessa Furlong, where we get to put our stories on stage. We also run a training course for circus studios that want to incorporate adaptive programming. 

One of the biggest changes for me is that I am completely comfortable with who I am. Three things that have helped me massively are movement, writing and support.

I almost did not get this chance to fully live. Today when things get bad, I remind myself that no matter how dark and awful things seem, they can completely change. Not only that but some of the worst things turn into some of the best. 

Photo by Michael East Photography

Photo by Michael East Photography

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