Looking for subtlety

Sometimes I feel stuck in a no-man’s land between two narratives. My understanding of spinal cord injury before my fall came from two kinds of stories. I thought you broke your back, you took a year off, you did your physical therapy, and then you returned to biking. You got back into skiing again. You even came back stronger. Certainly wiser. But the story arch hinges on coming full circle. Success is defined by this.

Alternatively, I thought you broke your back and lost everything. All sensation and all movement below the level of injury. Then you learn to expertly use a wheelchair and become a motivational speaker and a paralympian. You don’t do rehab. You learn and excel at an adaptive sport.

I am not a character in either of those stories. I have been injured almost two years and I am not close to either cinematic triumph. There is a sense that I should lay low. A sense of shame, perhaps. Suggesting that my story is not worth telling, is not worth sharing until I fit one of those narratives. That here, in the middle, is failure. Or worse: that the slow leg biking, the limited swimming is all for nothing. That I’m working towards something unattainable and missing real opportunities in the mean time.

I’m still not comfortable in a wheelchair. Still restless sitting all day as my legs and butt take turns falling asleep in my seat. I’m still not strong or fast enough to walk in a practical way. It always has to be a special even, with planning and preparation.

I’m probably not the only one who feels this way. Perhaps the slightly-limping, skiing SCI miracles feel incomplete. Feel in the middle of their recovery story. Feel broken and behind compared to another person on Instagram. Are we all just looking ahead, at the person we perceive at our finish line? And, obviously, that line is an ever-shifting thing.

Being a competitive and goal-oriented individual certainly plays a role. I’m working on tempering those qualities with patience. Aside from that, I think what’s missing is a more nuanced narrative. I want to learn how to tell a story that has subtlety instead of victory. That has uncertainty. So that when each of us leaves the familiar scripts, for whatever reason, we are comfortable to continue talking. We are not tempted to hide until we are less hurt or rewrite.

4 thoughts on “Looking for subtlety

  1. Paulina

    I totally agree that a more nuanced narrative would certainly be helpful – being stuck in the liminal space where you’re not completing either cinematic arc, but living in the other space, full of uncertainty, and challenges that are not easy. The middle is not failure, the middle is nuance, and because of that it is confusing.

    And it is why I get stares for standing up from my wheelchair, because one is not supposed to be able to do that – you’re either bound to it forever, or you never use it again (of course, the reality I live as a part-time wheelchair user and part-time crutches user is quite the opposite). There’s also the morality wrapped around all of this, where one triumphs over adversity by hard work, not grinds away for years trying to maintain the current status quo and not backslide. You are not alone here, in the middle.

    1. Alina Post author

      I’m glad this resonated with you. I can’t imagine the weird looks people give you as a part-time wheelchair user. The understanding of disability needs so much more depth.

  2. doug gray

    I find your frank confession of being neither the “perfect heroic para athlete” nor the “moved on recovered climber” to be very authentic and real. Life is individual spiritual home schooling for each of us, and we often feel like “C” students, not failing, but maybe not excelling either! At least I often feel that way.

    I was the guy who advised you to use swim fins awhile back, glad you seem to enjoy some water sports. I was looking at some of the footage of you doing stuff, and it is interesting to observe my own judgments and prejudices. Seeing you go through the exercises in the gym, my gut reaction is, “Wow, a foxy climbing girl prancing around the gym.” Then when I see you in a wheel chair, it’s like, “Oh, a handicapped person in a wheel chair.” We do tend to react a certain way to a person using a wheel chair, but at least I am aware of it!

    Next time you book AIRBNB, don’t tell them, just show up! Hah!!

    1. Alina Post author

      Hey Doug,
      Thanks for the positive feedback. And glad I’m not the only one who sees herself that way (as a “C” student).

      Recognizing that reaction in yourself is a great first step. If you want to work on, I recommend volunteering for some adaptive sports organizations. Exposure to wheelchair users is the only cure, I think.
      I wish more people were self-aware of their reactions, it would make my life a lot easier…


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