Who Am I? Who Are You?: The Physical Self

Who you are is certainly influenced by your physical self.

Were you the best looking girl/guy in your class?

Or were you the one who envied her/him?  

Or maybe you didn’t care about her/him at all.

How might each one of these positions have influenced who you are today?

I met an attractive African American man with large muscles and I assumed he’d been the kid who’d gotten chosen for all the teams, but I was wrong.  He’d been the “skinny” kid in the class and he hated it. He got busy working out and changed his physical self into one that had muscles.

How have you changed your physical self to more closely match what feels right for who you are?

I’ve included part of a personal essay I wrote about my physical self.  Read it or don’t. Both is fine.  But I’d really like to hear how your physicality (however you interpret that) contributed to creating the Self you are now. If you didn’t get a chance to speak about your name last week and want to, feel free to do that this week.

Walking

The wind tears around the building. A few flakes are tossed into the street lamps lining the sidewalk and lighting my way through the dark. Not much traffic tonight. I grab for an edge, anything I can hang on to. A few people scurry by hurrying to get home and warm. Always hard getting help on bad weather days. My gloved hand scales the wall as I slide my body along the bricks of an old brownstone. If I can just make it to that diner across the street. My legs are useless clay logs; I mostly have arms now, and I could lose them too. A few people crouching down in winter coats run out of the Christopher Street IRT toward West Fourth and Grove. I envy the ease with which they move their bodies from point A to point B without thought. Snow drifts down onto the George Segal sculptures that reach out to touch each other in Sheridan Square Park. I aim first for that lamppost near the sidewalk. There I can take a break before starting the hardest part of the journey—crossing the street.

I hold my arms out for balance; take my first step away from the wall, less proficient than a toddler. I slide one foot next to the other and take another step and another. Suddenly my legs fold under me and I crash to the sidewalk. I pull myself up onto my hands and knees and crawl the rest of the way. There’s no shame left for me to feel when it goes this far. The cold icy wet soaks through the knees of my jeans.
“You okay?” A voice asks from above me, but I can’t respond. Not possible to concentrate on crawling and talking at the same time. I want to make it to the pole before I lose my arms, too.

“You have too much to drink?” the voice asks.

“You okay?” A voice asks from above me, but I can’t respond. Not possible to concentrate on crawling and talking at the same time. I want to make it to the pole before I lose my arms, too.

“You have too much to drink?” the voice asks.

That’s what they always think or that I’m on drugs. “No,” I say.

“You pregnant?” That’s the second thing they think. “No,” I say, leaning against the pole. Nothing left in me to pull myself up into a standing position.

“Could you help me?” I ask the man standing above me. Or the woman. Or the teenager. Whoever happened to be kind enough to stop that day. Or night.

The first time the “thing” happened I was ten. It was an ordinary school day. I was playing tag at the bus stop with the other kids. A bright fall morning. There was a woman cop who watched over us, but now that I think of it, she may have been a crossing guard. I was coming into “Home” my legs pushing me toward the big maple tree that was home base. I was almost there when my legs flew out from under me. My body rippled and slammed into the massive roots of the tree. Those were the days when girls had to wear dresses to school so my knees were banged up badly. I don’t remember if anyone gathered around me or if the lady cop said anything. I must have just gotten up and mounted the bus for school when it arrived. An uneventful moment—a kid skinning her knees.

That afternoon I told my mother about the strange thing that had happened. Strange not because I fell down. I was an active kid playing mostly with boys. It was the way I fell, the sensations that occurred in my legs. Or were they in my head? I fumbled for words to explain the “thing” that had happened, how my body was suddenly no longer a part of me. It must have been around that time that I began to consider my body as something undependable, quite apart from “me,” something where “me” was merely housed.  When I finished my feeble explanation, Mom scowled and walked away, saying nothing.

Mom turned away from me that day because she thought I was imitating her and she didn’t want to encourage me.  Only—I have no recollection of the “thing” happening to her prior to my own first time.

I don’t know how much time elapsed after the first incident, but once it got going it ripped through my life.  If I jumped rope my legs would give way and I’d be thrown to the ground.  If I played softball my legs would become useless before I reached first base.  It wasn’t long before the loss of my legs didn’t simply mean a momentary fall; my legs were gone for hours and sometimes this thing took my arms and slurred my speech.  I went quickly from being an active, friendly kid to a fearful, withdrawn one.

I became fearful of crossing streets since I’d fallen in the middle of oncoming traffic a few times.  I became fearful of walking with people in groups, especially, strangers who didn’t know about the “thing,” because they might suddenly dash across the road leaving me behind looking foolish or crushed under someone’s car tire.

One evening I was on our block playing kick ball and I fell.  Again.  My mother came out of the house and put her arms around me as I cried, “Why does this keep happening?  I can’t stand it.”

She said, “Don’t worry.  We’re going to get you help.”  And thus began the endless visits to doctors.

(A lot more happens in here)

I was in my mid-thirties and deep into my dissertation when my sister called.  She said her therapist, a psychiatric nurse, had been reading a scientific journal and came across an article about a strange disorder with symptoms similar to ours.  I made an appointment with a special neurologist.  He examined me and announced that I had something real, not something I was “psychologically” inducing in myself.  It was a genetic thing and this thing had a name.  Familial Episodic Ataxia.

 

2 Comments

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2 Responses to Who Am I? Who Are You?: The Physical Self

  1. Wow, Vanda. I did not know this about you. What a nightmare, especially when you didn’t know it was a “thing.” I had a friend who had a disease with no name, is genetic, and the doctors simply call it ataxia. I wonder if they’re the same thing, or it’s just that both diseases have one of the same symptoms?

    As for me. Yes, I was one of the pretty ones. I was also the smallest/shortest one until after my freshman year in high school, when I grew three inches taller. I wasn’t a fat kid. I gained weight in my 30s and have kept it and added to it over the years. I seem to have reached my “set point” about ten years ago.

    Seven years ago I dyed my hair red. I was born blond, and had blond hair all my life. But I have the complexion of a redhead, and I always wanted to be a redhead. My daughter was born with red hair (I always said I wished it on her). So I asked her if it was okay if I dyed my hair red before I did, not wanting to compete with her. She said yes. Since then, her hair has grown in blond. wtf, right? But I’m happiest as a redhead.

    I’m still working on accepting my body as is. I’m pretty happy. Mostly because I am able to walk and climb stairs and swim. I have lots of friends my age who cannot.

    Feel free to edit my comments to suit what you want to see on your page. sdh

  2. You look great as a redhead. That’s hysterical that once you dyed your hair red, the way it felt right for you, you’re daughter’s hair came in blond. I hope she feels okay with that. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be the pretty girl in the class, how that affects the whole of your life. And, yes, accepting one’s body. I’m not sure I’m there yet. No matter how old you get there’s always something more to work on.

    Thanks for your response.

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