It was a “how did you know?” moment. At a dinner party I was telling a physical therapist I had just met about my herniated disc. She replied “did you just turn 30?” I hadn’t, I was only 29 at the time, but I amazed at the accuracy nonetheless. She told me herniated discs were a very common injury among specifically men of my age. It’s a juncture in life when people typically reckless with their bodies are all of a sudden greeted with a mortal reality.
With the pain that I was feeling and the obvious link that was placed in front of me, a level of self knowledge was immediately unlocked. I’ve always thrown myself around. When I was child I dove for balls in goal and on the basketball court. As a teenager I enjoyed Aikido for the amount I was thrown around. In my 20s I trained by lifting stones (probably not well) having watched too many 1980’s World’s Strongest Man competitions on youtube.
A year before the the fall I noticed that my body had started to catch up with me. I suffered back spasms a few times after an epic bike ride or going out dancing all night. And then I jumped off a 5 metre ledge while camping, thinking nothing of it, foolhardy, and didn’t spring to my feet as expected. Normally I relied on youthful regeneration to make those things okay, but I in that moment I couldn’t “walk off” what turned out to be a herniated disc L5-S1 disc. While my body’s resilience was lessening, my approach hadn’t changed.
2 years later, I’m grappling with the necessary adjustments. I know at minimum that the future for me is a time to warm up properly, a time to know my limits, and a time to say “no” to corporeal adventure occasionally. I have a body, and my body has changing abilities. I was lucky enough to have abilities in my past that allowed leap and crash and haul through anything. Now I see that’s a type of privilege I took for granted. In the year after that ledge-jump that I was scarcely able to sit pain-free and was given the humbling opportunity to meditate on what life I could make if I was never able sit comfortably again. I’m lucky it turned out to be only a hypothetical question. And I’m lucky because it introduced me to ableism.
As a white man in the world it is more difficult for me to see many systemic inequalities, such as racism and patriarchy. I am also a “healthy” white man, and the fact that we don’t usually add that qualifier serves the point that being in good somatic condition is under appreciated. Let me be clear, there are degrees, I still walk and live an active life. Yet my injury revealed that I hadn’t felt the dimension of ability as a place where systemic inequality could exist. When you are part of the dominant group in any system of oppression you are at a disadvantage for seeing that system clearly. It’s difficult to arrive at a clear picture through logic and discourse. Empirical experience on the other hand is quite the crash course.
My introduction to ableism involved the disconnect from my friends by not being able to meet them in restaurant for dinner where sitting was expected. I hadn’t noticed that offices and the public sphere assume the ability of not needing a place to rest. I’m certainly not the worst off, but my herniated disc and its trials lifted a veil for me. By extension I can see many of the healths I have now—as grand as sight, and as invisible as being migraine free—are likewise privileges. They are privileges like any other of a complex dynamic where self-awareness is only the first step, and lifelong anti-bias work of always remains.
If you are suffering from a herniated disc, then I hope you too can understand what the meaning of the injury is for you. For me learning about my personality, and yet another of my prejudicial blindspots were important resultant lessons. If you would like to read more of my lessons from herniated discs I discuss 5 initial ones here and 4 more subsurface ones here. Please let me know what you reaction on twitter.