Friday, March 6, 2009

The place where nobody can follow

In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a trip to Europe. It's always a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow.

--Flannery O'Connor


Julie of Modern Mitzvot wrote some great stuff about her back problems and attendant pain, and I identified so strongly. I started this post as a blog comment on the thread (at Alas, a blog), and was eventually embarrassed by the length and overall narcissism of it... so I am printing it here instead and tracking back. (Narcissism IS acceptable on my own blog, after all!)


Julie's original post, titled About My Body.

This is some great writing, Julie. I think the process you describe mirrors aging very well, too. (you've had something of a crash course)

When I broke my leg, the person who "rescued" me thought I'd also broken my wrist because of the way I'd tried to break my fall with my hand ... I was in so much pain from the "sprained ankle" (I didn't know my tibia was actually broken until the X-ray, about a week later) that I hardly noticed.

Now the leg is healed, but a small bone/ligament in my left thumb is inflamed, and apparently, I broke that too but just never knew it. (My doctor says this happens all the time in injuries--people often don't notice the "smaller" injury until much later.)

So, I never healed properly and it keeps getting re-injured with every new move. In short, it now hurts like the proverbial motherfucker. (I open boxes and put stuff on shelves every day and thumbs are necessary.) The joint is now HUGE and swollen; and I am reminded of Sissy Hankshaw in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues--which is not a pleasant thought at all.

Just letting you know, I am with you.

I have recently passed into another place, wherein I don't really consider myself able-bodied now. There is just too much, taken together...thyroid disease, arthritis, high cholesterol, and now my Sissy Hankshaw thumb. I am supposed to go get some immobilizing-brace for my wrist and thumb, but after wearing a leg-cast for so long, I am self-conscious about still another thing going wrong with me. It makes me appear vulnerable and calls attention to my age, in a job market in which older workers are getting left behind. I try to look energetic and "happy" on my job, since we are "selling a lifestyle" and all that shit: I feel pressure in the health supplement industry to always appear healthy. Since it's a job in which people are always talking about their health, I am duly questioned about mine, when there are many times (like now) that I'd rather not answer. The overall sentiment seems to be: well, if you know so much about supplements, why are you falling apart? Aging is inevitable and people are in denial about that, as well as in denial about disability-as-part-of-life in general... I recently had a seemingly-reasonable, middle-class, educated woman very seriously and sagely inform me that cerebral palsy could be cured by detoxification and raw foods.

Ohhh, good God.

Thus, I am also coming to terms with the concept that my business can be oppressively intolerant of illness and ableist... it's like when I came to terms with the fact that my religion could be and has been oppressive. Just because I have a positive approach, certainly does not mean everyone in the business does, and that is also depressing to finally confront and accept.

Julie writes:

And I keep wondering if the whole sprain/strain thing is just a smokescreen anyway - if the problem is something completely different and has gone untreated. What if the doctors aren’t taking me seriously because I’m a woman? What if they think I’m lying?
I think what you are describing is an intersectionality, in these days of Feminist Blogdonia discussing intersectionalities: Ableism and ageism meets sexism. The very idea that a young, lovely, middle-class graduate student like yourself could have anything going awry physically? I mean, how could that be? It just doesn't fit the whole prescribed template for your life. You are going outside the boundaries, and whoever does that in our society is summarily punished for it.

This is part and parcel of the same wholesale cultural denial at the heart of eating disorders: But wait, she can't be sick, she is beautiful!!!! Confronting this fact leads to an unwelcome confrontation with WHAT we consider beautiful in our culture; beauty can co-exist with SICKNESS and DETERIORATION. (And what does that tell us about beauty standards?)

Julie writes:
But the core of the issue is that I’m afraid I’m making this up. I’m afraid it’s all in my head. Why didn’t I think to go to the ER that night in my boyfriend’s apartment? I’d known other people who’d gotten quick injections for back spasms; in fact, one of them was standing over me, offering to carry me to the bathroom. Obviously it was because deep down, I was just pretending. Why can I still not wrap my head around the idea that this pain is real?
Because of all of the above. How can this be happening to you, when you are a mainstream person? Our ableist culture teaches us that this is an exceptional, weird thing... when in fact it is normal and average. Pain is part of life--as Buddha said, life is suffering. Somewhere along the line, Western Civ decided pain was an anomaly, or evil, or punishment, probably because it was USED to inflict punishment. Pain is stigmatized, it often renders people poor. Bad luck.

And you have always had pretty good luck, so how can this happen to you? WE ARE AMERICANS, goddammit, everything is supposed to be easy. When it isn't, we feel cheated and angry. We are socialized that way. (And that is another intersectionality, Western culture: the Wild-West stoicism that leaves the sick dog by the side of the road to be eaten by coyotes while the wagon-train continues westward.)
I just want to know why I lack the courage to admit that it hurts, to ask someone to listen and help.
On some intuitive level, I think you know that this admission brings about contempt and judgment in people, and you want to avoid this. Like the raw foods lady, the endless yammerings about "what you should do" never let up. People judge. They are afraid, so they create distance instead of connection.

I want to create connection, so I am sending my virtual ((hugs)) to Julie, and anyone else out there who is experiencing physical pain.

Yes, it does hurt, but it also proves that we are alive, awake and aware of our bodies.

By necessity, and in spite of ourselves.