What If?

A week ago, I had my first physical therapy appointment. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned it before, but for the last few years I’ve experienced a grinding pain in my right ankle joint when I walk more than a few blocks, as well as moderate to severe back pain when I’m on my feet for any length of time. Once again, because of my background in dance, I know what causes these things. Some of my family, myself included, have a congenital misalignment of the hip joint that causes all kinds of messed up things–knees that turn in and rotated calf muscles and the like. You can see it in pictures going back for years; my dad had it. It causes a person’s feet to pronate (flatten), which, in turn, makes the outer ankle joint grind. The back pain is because I’ve been sedentary so long my abdominal and core muscles have atrophied, so I hyper extend my pelvis. Simple.

Anyway, I asked my doctor for a physical therapy referral, which she was happy to provide. Even when I know what’s going on and what to do about it, I have some idea that those things will be easier if someone else tells me to do them. And it’s often true. When I was more bought in to societal messages about weight and health and all that, it was easier for me to pursue a “healthier” lifestyle. Now I’ve shed a lot of those beliefs, most of the time I simply don’t care whether I’m healthy or not.

The appointment went about as I expected. I didn’t get a lot of new information. My feet are strong enough, but my joints and tendons are looser than “normal,” so, when I gained a lot of weight and lost muscle, they gave way. The PT recommended orthotics, prescribed some mild exercises, and told me to come back in ten days.

While he was writing up my plan (such as it was), I had a thought: “What if taking care of my health is my job right now?” What if it’s what I need to do for myself, whether or not I care or feel interested and motivated? Just because taking care of one’s health to the best of one’s ability is a sensible and objectively good thing to do? Leaving aside complications of the way the Western medical industry is constructed and its tendency to cling to a priori assumptions about what constitutes health, as well as the myth that you can judge someone’s health by looking at them, isn’t that a uniquely human thing to do?

The question upset and terrified me. Trying to explain to my husband reduced me to incoherent tears. In the first place, something about ongoing and seemingly never-ending processes instills me with existential and primal horror. I have no idea why this is. A common selling point of a lot of fad diets and weight loss systems is the phrase, “Not a diet, but a lifestyle change!” Maybe there’s a connection there; I hate that rhetoric because I question the value of the lifestyle it promotes, or I view a “lifestyle change” as… I honestly do not know. When I think about it, I think of the final challenge in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indy comes to the precipitous edge of what looks like an abyss between himself and his goal. Remembering the clue about faith, he steps into what seems like thin air; the camera angle shifts to reveal a narrow stone bridge across the gap, its stones so close in color and shape to those of the abyss walls as to provide perfect camouflage. Indy, of course, scatters dust before him to make his path clear, and reaches the Grail. For me, that invisible bridge never ends and no Grail exists. I walk on air forever and ever, only faith keeping me aloft.

Or maybe I’m more like a cartoon character, who can walk off the edge of the cliff, unencumbered by the laws of gravity until they look down.

Whatever the source, as I said, the idea of going on forever and never reaching a destination is intensely awful to me, so awful I had to walk away from this post for an entire day after writing the previous paragraph. No rest, no home, no ability to stop or sit down. Isn’t that the theme of some enduring folktales, like the Wandering Dutchman? Don’t some believe the traveling people were cursed?

Another reason the idea of “working on my health” upsets me is it brings up the eternal question, “What then?” What if I do become healthier? What if I regain the stamina I’ve lost, build muscle, stop having back pain, find a way to regulate my weird hunger issues and all that? Do I even care about that? No one has any obligation to “be healthy” on anyone’s terms, especially not anyone else’s. Do I really think it will improve my life to go through all this? And then to have to keep repeating the same patterns over and over until I die (because you can’t just do any of this stuff once and be done; I learned that in the six years I sat on my ass)? The honest answer is I don’t. I think having a few minimal comforts in my life and not being surrounded by overtly abusive people is as good as it gets.

That kind of leads to the third reason this “what if?” question upsets me: It hurts. It leads into thoughts I don’t want to explore and emotions I don’t want to feel. You wouldn’t think 20 reps of a simple exercise on each leg and 2 minutes of another for each foot twice a day would be so difficult, but it’s emotionally excruciating for me to keep them up. I forget. I procrastinate. I make excuses. ANYTHING to avoid doing them.

I think of myself as an open book, but the truth is, I’ve spent the last 15+ years in stasis, like a person in a Science Fiction novel with an incurable disease, who gets frozen until technology catches up. The stasis wasn’t perfect. I lost weight and gained it. I aged. I didn’t look my age, and maybe I still don’t, but lately I’ve noticed wrinkles beneath my eyes in the mornings, creases above my upper lip. It kept me from dying, though. So far. Now I’m out of stasis, gods know why, because there doesn’t seem to be any cure yet. And things that happened (or didn’t) while I was in stasis still affected me. I’m angry, but I don’t know how to be angry, so I’m just in pain. I want to go back into my box. I want it to stop.

When I was young, my one goal was survival. Sometimes I lost track of that, notably when I was anorexic. Not coincidentally, I think, this was when I lost the ability to care much about anything, but when I “recovered” enough not to need hospitalization, my goal was the same: survive until I could get out of an intolerable situation and be my true self. The older I get, the less sure I am of what my true self is, or if it even exists. I have a consistent feeling the life I have is not the one I was supposed to have, though I’m unable to articulate what “the one I was supposed to have” looks like. I’ve never been career-minded. I’ve never had much ambition. Maybe this is because I lack the capacity to believe that anything I do matters in a real sense. It’s all filling time. People tell me having written seven novels is an achievement; I think I only did it because otherwise I’d have sat on the couch and stared at the walls. It was possible, and preferable to facing the emptiness at my core.

A few days ago, I remarked to my husband that we’ve lived in our house twenty-one years. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I never imagined we’d be here so long. I thought we’d have a couple kids, find a bigger place, do the things the rest of our nominal peer group in town did. I wanted those things, more than I realized at the time. They’re out of the question now, and nothing replaces them. I blame myself; how did I let that happen? It’s impossible to pursue dreams, or even have them, when your very existence depends on forbearance.

This blog post has no tidy ending. It’s all questions, and taking one step after another. Going on and never arriving. Some people do it by choice. For me it’s an unceasing nightmare.

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