Temporary Disability: Shifting Perspective.

Guest Column by Molly White.

I’m lying in the MRI machine, focusing on the slight changes in pitch of each loud pang trying to distract myself from the weight of the situation.  I send myself all the messages that this machine is not.  I tell myself that I am safe, happy and free from pain and I imagine I am surrounded in white light which is protecting me from any harmful magnetic effects of this 20 minute affront, and pretty soon I am relaxed and yes, relatively pain by TheeErin.

Pain free.  What a concept!  I have a love affair with pain that is both debilitating and self-fulfilling.  It has gone on so long now that when it comes back after a long two or three month absence I almost welcome it like an old and familiar lover.  Perhaps he knocks on my door and I don’t have the heart to turn him away, so reluctantly I let him stay taking up the space and eating my groceries.  With the pain there, I am forced to lie down to experience any relief, so I resign myself, I drop my projects and deadlines, hoping that in a week or so I will be back on my feet and pain will be gone.  But every time I worry that this time he might stay for good.

Over the years I have tried different treatments: acupuncture, chiropractics, Jin Shin Jyutsu, homeopathic medicine, holistic medicine, Yoga, Pilates, vocal lessons, Alexander Technique, massage therapy, Feldenkrais, physical therapy, hydrotherapy, aromatherapy, reflexology and talk therapy.  There has never been a cure, an answer, a magic bullet.  And yet I keep searching.  Most recently and because this is covered by my health insurance, I visited a neurosurgeon and an orthopedist.  Both thought that a certain minimally invasive surgery could help, but neither reassured me that it would fix my problem or make my pain go away.  

Going on my fourth week of pain (this time he has certainly overstayed his welcome), I am defeated in my efforts to be rid of him.  If surgery is not necessarily going to heal me, what will?  I struggle to understand what my pain could be pointing to, and just like the story of the teacher pointing to the moon, I feel like the student who can only see the teacher’s finger, I cannot see the moon.  What will it take for me to understand this pain?

On Saturday, February 26, 2011, I went to a conference at Barnard College called “Movement: Politics, Performance, and Disability”.  I wanted to find out what real disabled people were talking about.  What kind of insight might I gain about my own state of pain?  How do these experts work with their obstacles?  Maybe at the intersection of feminist studies and disability studies would be my answer, my pot of gold.

There must have been 150 people in the James Room on the 4th floor of Barnard Hall, mostly women, some of them in wheelchairs.  The plenary talks aimed to make connections between cultural production, performance, aesthetics, activism and scholarship as they relate to disability.  One woman, Alice Sheppard, was a dancer whose dance company had choreographed pieces specifically for her and her wheelchair.  She had expert control of her wheelchair and could gracefully fall to the side, roll onto her back and jimmy herself back up onto the wheels all by herself and without the use of her legs as she demonstrated in her presentation.  

I was impressed and inspired.  Here she is, able to use the thing that is commonly thought to be in her way, her wheel-chair-bound-ness, and she has turned it into the thing that she does, professionally.  Moving, speaking, writing and analyzing her experience has allowed her to reclaim the disability and turn it into an asset.  As she said in her presentation, she conceptually blends the flesh of her ass with the metal of the chair, dancing nimbly, as if it were a prosthesis, as if this lugubrious artifact were light and as if she actually loved this part of herself.  Yes! This is what it takes.  Love.  And your “pain” can be your wheelchair, your deformity, or your thinking that you are not whole.  All these disabilities have the potential to get in the way of realizing your purpose.

At the end of the conference we gathered into the Event Oval of the Diana Center and in a semicircle created a stage of the floor where “Gimp” was performed by the Heidi Latsky Dance Company.  This was a physical manifestation of the articulate speaking that had gone on throughout the day.  Women had spoken from their experience about discoveries on how to function and thrive in the world under the pressures of discrimination and accessibility inequality.  I was impressed by the amount of agency of these women, who had the self-knowledge to voice what was right for them and to continue to work toward shifting the old paradigm that sees disabled people as incapable members of our society.   
The performance of “Gimp” was dramatic and violent and sensuous, and every performer had something valuable to bring to the performance no matter their disability.  It asked us to “look, to really look” at the performers and their differences, at their bodies and what their bodies could do.  We watched slow and smooth, stiff and jerky movements, repeated gestures and languishing motions.  The simple act of walking became a poem.  

I am generally considered able-bodied, not disabledMove, and yet my body pain has been a sharp and jagged window I have had to crawl through, and I have to be more careful than most other people.  I hate my body for this, and I struggle to find peace with it.  Not everyone is able to turn their pain into their identity in a positive way.  It is a difficult thing to do but it is something I am drawn towards, something maybe I have to do.  Maybe this conference is that teacher pointing at the moon and the moon is expression itself!  Maybe it’s just as simple as doing what you love despite your pain, finding another route, another method or path.  I have to remind myself that I’m not in competition with my pain, but my circumstance, like a disability, highlights an opportunity for experimentation and a potential change in perspective.

March 2011

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