So now I have officially graduated, and have been back to work in the lab for a little over a week. The days are long, but my shoulder, while not entirely pleased, has thus far refrained from laying me out as it has in the past. Surprisingly, it is the “good” shoulder that has been giving me the most trouble. And while I realize that means the surgery to fix the “good” one the same way the “bad” one was fixed in January should probably occur sooner rather than later, I’m not ready to sign on for a fresh dose of nightmarish post-surgical pain and an additional six months of immobility just yet. I’m hoping it can wait a year. Or three.
I still can’t do anything that involves carrying something like a purse, backpack, or tote bag on either shoulder. I still can’t lift anything very heavy at all, nor anything moderately heavy for more than a few seconds. But my range of motion is back, and light-duty activities are fine as long as I don’t overdo. Most important, I’ve started to swim again.
Not a lot – nowhere near what I used to consider a regular workout – but I don’t care. Even a few minutes is heavenly. I had been afraid my body would forget how to do it. Not how to swim, of course; I’ve been doing that for far too much of my life to lose it in less than two years. No, I was afraid I’d forget how to distance swim, the smooth, economical crawl I used to use when I was swimming a mile or more, before I embarked upon the now infamous endeavor of intense training that catalyzed my injury.
About six or seven years ago, back when I first started to swim again as an adult, I could barely make it a lap without having to take a break, gulp air, and wait for my heart to stop slamming at my throat so I could do the next one. I thought that’s where I’d be when I came back to it this time, but that didn’t happen. On the contrary, I pushed off the wall and my arms and legs went right into it, as though I’d never stopped. At first, I was afraid to swim more than a dozen yards, but the last time, I completed a hundred meters before my muscles informed me they were done. I stayed in the water for a while afterwards, floating on my back and staring at the sky, thinking, knowing.
I never thought I’d be back. I had long since ceased to hope I would ever get clear of the pain and disablement that has so compressed my life the last two years. I had grown accustomed to the smallness of my existence. The fear that I would not be able to swim, to work, to live normally, had become an integral part of my thinking and being, so familiar that it no longer registered as unusual or different.
It is only now, as it has begun to dwindle, that I realize how much space that fear took up inside my body and head. For a long while, I had thought, or hoped, rather, that it would vanish all at once, a ridiculous fantasy that belongs dropped by the side of the road where I left it so many months ago. I didn’t expect this tiny but inexorable leak that has only recently lowered the water level enough for me to be able to measure it.
I have learned so much about myself. What I can’t do. What I can do, and endure, which is both less and more, respectively, than I had imagined. My imagination, which I had put such stock in as a poet and songwriter, turns out to have been under-qualified for the task of predicting how much I could take and how strange it would get.
I have learned that my strength of will runs far deeper than I thought. I have learned how and where to apply it, too, as well as where not to apply it, although I have not been completely able to extract myself from a number of futile efforts just yet, particularly when it comes to something important to me.
I have learned where my boundaries are.
Before this happened, I couldn’t see any boundaries. They were there, of course, but I acted as though they weren’t. The edges of where I thought I could go seemed far enough away that I never concerned myself about running up against them. I didn’t expect them to suddenly spring out of the ground and knock me flat, high walls of stone that I could not – will not ever be able to – scale no matter how I tried.
But I’ve learned there’s enough room inside of them to live, and moreover, to live well. More room than I thought, when I was face to face with them, my back turned to still-broad landscape they encircled. I used to think seeing and acknowledging boundaries meant failure. I was stingy and reluctant in accepting the few I had encountered before this happened.
I am surprised at how content and comfortable I have become inside them. Strangely, I feel more free than I did without them. It is as though I had been too exposed before, intimidated by the virtually limitless stretch of earth that extended around me in all directions. Now that I’ve found the fences – now that I’ve learned to accept that there are fences – and I feel safer and more serene. I know exactly where I can and cannot go. I’m no longer hampered by the anxiety of worrying about how far I “should” be able to go, the things I “should” be able to do.
I am physically fragile and always will be. I am a high-functioning autistic and always will be. I can’t make those things any different than they are for the trying; if I could, I certainly would have done so already, considering how many years and immeasurable amounts of energy I’ve already invested in it.
Now, I can see how to care for myself as a human, this human, this great ape. I had been worried that I would never be able to have a real career. My HFA allows me to work normally, but leaves me ill-equipped to manage more than an hour or two a day of the social interaction nearly always inherent therein, which [finally] explains why I always burned out when trying to work full-time before. But working in research, I can be in the lab nine or even ten hours a day and still count my total time spent communicating with other people in mere minutes. It is perfect for me, and better than that, I enjoy it and am happy doing it.
I never thought I would stop hating this maladroit, easily damaged casing that carts me around. But it turns out to have an advantage; it requires less activity, and less strenuous activity at that, to keep it in optimal form. I cannot take what’s considered the right amount of exercise (for the average person) or I will stress it to the point of injury. A couple of workouts and a few extra trips up and down the stairs is more than enough, and rather than being resentful about it, I can be grateful for it, because I can work more, and rest more, the former being necessary for the next few years, and the latter likely forever.
As much as I used to value how self-sufficient I was in all respects (or thought I was, anyway), it’s not so bad to have learned how to get through life leaning on the people around me when I have to. It forces me to stay connected to my fellow humans, to be friendly to everyone I come into contact with, because I never know when I’m going to need help with a door, or something on a shelf, or, as happened just yesterday in the lab, moving the tank of water I had just refilled from the cart back to the sink.
It’s probably even a good thing that I can no longer sit in a car for hours on end, so intent on getting where I was going that I never paid attention to the scenery flying by. Having to take breaks every hour or so of a long drive means fresh air and a chance to enjoy wherever I happen to be, to acknowledge the fact that it’s really not the end of the world if it takes a little longer than it should to get where I’m going, and that the route I chose might not be the absolute best way to get there. Because who is really paying attention to that besides me, anyway?
I think it is that last bit that has been the most important lesson of all. My god, I used to be in such a damn rush, and it all had to be so perfect. My late entry into this science career only made it worse; I had to graduate on time, had to take the hardest classes and get the highest grades, had to accept every commitment offered, had to invest a full complement of time and energy into each one… there’s no way I could have kept that up. If this hadn’t happened to me, something else would have, and who’s to say it wouldn’t have been worse, in timing, or severity?
I didn’t think I’d ever get to a place where I felt lucky, or grateful. I used to rail so hard against people who’d been through similar ordeals and claimed they felt that way, because I just couldn’t understand it. I was so angry, so full of despair, and I could not conceive any other way of thinking about it. I wanted to know how they got to that peaceful place. The self-important trumpeting about simply being there seemed worse than useless; it felt smug and insincere.
But I can be sincere when I say that there are times, brief and infrequent thought they may be, when I feel blessed, and full of gratitude, for the life I am able to have despite everything that’s happened. More and more often, I don’t feel diminished by this but enriched, by what I’ve learned and who I’ve become.
Of course, I still have anger, and sorrow. I still have a lot of resentment to work through. It’s not fair, what happened to me. These kinds of things never are. I don’t have an explanation for why it happened, or what the higher purpose was, because there isn’t one, not for me, and not for any of us. But there is a way to get to some peace about it, and this blog has been my documentation of that journey, the “how” I searched for so vainly for so long, preserved for posterity for those still searching, still in the weeds, still suffering, still eclipsed with despair.
My journey isn’t over yet. There is still another surgery; there will still be more pain, before there is less. There may very well be pain forever. But it doesn’t matter; I know I can take it. I’ve proven I can, over these last nearly two years.
And if I can, so can you.
Even though stories never really have ends, I feel that the important part of my experience is what has already been written here on this blog.
I have finished posting, at least for the moment (probably), but I will make sure this site stays up, for those who come after, who are undertaking their own painful journeys, in hopes that it makes them feel a little less hopeless and alone.
Thank you, to everyone who has been commenting, following, and lurking. Your eyes have been my solace through these dark days and nights, the many obstacles, the few triumphs. I could not have done this without you.
This Great Ape