Pain and soreness this morning are way up from my usual, and as usual, I don’t know why. I was already on a downward trajectory by Wednesday, but despite taking it easy at physical therapy on Thursday and not having class on Friday, that trajectory took a steep dive last night. Now I have an ice pack strapped to my shoulder at 7:45 AM on a Saturday and I’ve had to cancel my plans for the day so I can rest and wait for it settle back down.
This is my new normal. Activity, pain, rest, repeat. It was a sudden change: invincible one day, incapacitated the next. Although it only happened six months ago, it’s already disappeared from my rearview mirror, as though I’ve traveled untold miles since. And indeed I have, but in such a novel direction that my self-perception is a long way from catching up.
It’s like I’m in an arranged marriage with someone I don’t know. Now that I’m living with that person, I’ve grown accustomed to the day-to-day mundanities, but my psychological adjustment is coming along much more slowly. The new me is not a bad person, or even an unlikeable person, but she’s a stranger to me, and I’m resisting getting to know her better. I keep running up against the fact that I had no choice in the matter; of all the things I thought I was building with my life, this wasn’t anywhere among them. And since I wasn’t prepared for it, I struggle to gauge how much information to pass on to interested parties. The word “disabled” feels strange on my tongue, and carries with it a host of connotations which don’t apply to me even though the technical definition does. I feel obligated to qualify it with phrases like “nerve injury” and “extent of my disability remains to be seen” and other such accessories, as though I am dressing up a broken mannequin with a sequined scarf in the hopes it will distract from the damage.
I have no idea how to accessorize the new me. The physically active, multi-avocational persona I cultivated before this happened defined me, or rather, it was how I defined myself. That’s gone now, and I don’t know what’s left or how to describe it. When someone asks you about yourself, the first items you reach for are your interests and activities. You list hobbies and abilities, and things you like to do, and you throw in some particular personality quirk or two, such as being a little OCD when it comes to organizing your closets, or leaving notes on your front door to remind yourself not to walk out without your phone. (Lucky me, I get to keep that last one.)
My list is empty. All of my former branches and leaves have been cut away, leaving only a nondescript trunk. I’m not the tree I thought I was, and I don’t know what kind of tree I will become. Do I flower in Spring, or am I an evergreen? Am I a fruit-bearing tree? Am I easy to climb? Do I shelter birds and squirrels or snakes and raccoons? Do I bend with the wind like a weeping willow, or am I stocky and compact, like a Japanese maple? I don’t know. I used to have answers for these questions, and now I don’t. I used to think that I could choose whatever answers I wanted, but we don’t get to choose, no matter what we read in magazines or on the internet. I’ve discovered that our life paths are not nearly so mutable as we’d like to think.
The only thing we can control is whether to fight or to accept, whether to walk or be dragged, and whether to regret or make peace. It’s hard, and it’s emotional, and I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t done being a young person yet. Now that’s been ripped away from me, and I’m still clinging to the shreds of it left in my hands. I don’t have the willingness to learn who the new me is. After all, since I can’t choose anyway, what difference does it make?
As hard as that is, adopting the new mental calculus is even harder. I spent most of my adult life trying to do more than I was capable of, nearly always to my detriment. Now I’m trying to cultivate the habit of doing less, but it’s incredibly foreign and I’m not very good at it. It still feels wrong, like a cop-out, or laziness. Maybe I will be OK, I keep thinking. Maybe it’s not going to be as bad as I think it is. But then I try to lift something from the top of the fridge, or pull out a heavy drawer, and the shock of pain and weakness reminds me that even if it’s not always going to be as bad as this, it’s never going to be like it was.
And this is the new me. I have to get to know her, and learn to love her, because now we’re stuck with each other. It’s been arranged.