The world I live in is filled with strong people. Healthy people who go about their work, who "play hard" and "work out" and move about more or less unencumbered within the contingent range of physical autonomy that we embodied beings enjoy. I'm one of these people. I move about with an assumption of independence, with the freedom to go or stay, with access to virtually any structure, space, or environment that is publicly accessible.
But every now and again I'm separated from this world.
I'm suddenly subject to physical restrictions I hadn't realized could be imposed. I find myself in an alien environment, where stairs, a curb, or the space between the pavement and my car door looks like the flat rock face of some glaring and unfriendly mountain.
My condition isn't rare, or even all that serious, really. I've got chronic back pain caused by structural spinal and muscular problems. Most days it's not to serious, "A three or four out of ten," I'd say to my physical therapist. But every couple of months a wave of pain hits my lower back and -- sometimes literally -- knocks me off my feet. And wherever I am -- the grocery store, my apartment, the library -- I'm suddenly in the alternative version of that place, wondering how I'm going to make it back to my car or get to my doctor's office, wondering how I'm going to navigate the sprawling course of tactical challenges.
Things look strange in this alternative world. I've already mentioned the conceptual shift, how physical objects become obstacles. How the distances between objects, and how forces like gravity, become elements in the quest of navigation. How simple structures become boundaries. But the people in this world are strange as well.
Everyone I pass is someone I might potentially need to rely on, someone I might have to ask for help. I've literally shuffled along the sidewalk with my son in my arms, thinking, "Her? Could I ask her to hold him if I started to pass out? Do I trust her more than I fear falling down with my infant child?" They are also someone from whom I'm suddenly, desperately hiding my pain. I don't know why I feel the need to do this. I'm not ashamed of my physical weakness, or that's not entirely it. But it's something I don't want to have to explain. It's something I don't want to bother others with. After all, what could they do?
So I move in extraordinary pain. I move in ways to mask that pain, to hide the fact that there's really only one or two ways of moving that actually work for me at the moment. I lean on my son's stroller, or grab a handrail or a bench. I stop and furrow my brow, as if thinking about where in the world I desire to go next. "Oh, you can go ahead," I tell the women at the base of an ominous looking staircase, "I just remembered I have somewhere else to be."
This all makes me empathize with those who find themselves more permanently restricted.
I don't understand what it would be like to live in that world -- my visits there are always fairly brief, I'm always just vacationing until Recovery brings me back to the world of Unrestricted Mobility. I don't really want to understand it, to be honest. (Due to a fear, I think, that my spinal condition isn't as temporary or fixable as I've convinced myself.) But these visits have given me a tangible sense of the different kinds of needs present in our community. Of how hard it can be to communicate just what those needs are, of how frustrating it can be to have to do that, of how different things look from the perspective of immobility.
The thing that's so striking to me, too, about these experiences are how quickly the perspective itself vanishes. Days after I regain sufficient control of my body, the needs, worries, along with the entire conceptual scheme melt right back into the more ordinary experience of wellbeing. I hope -- pray, even -- that I bring something of the experience back with me, but if I do it's somewhere below the level of consciousness. I find it almost impossible to even willfully imagine myself back into this world, like it takes place in one of those dreams that become instantly and permanently inaccessible upon waking.