At some point in everyone’s life, he or she will experience a handicap. This handicap may be physical or psychological; it can be temporary or chronic. But how an individual adapts to his or her handicap will have ramifications beyond tying one’s shoes or expressing oneself. How we overcome our handicaps will ultimately define us.
The first time I threw out my back was the summer of 2001. I’d just moved to Tucson, Arizona, where I was enrolled in a graduate program. I didn’t know a soul―not a neighbor or a fellow student―when I contorted in such a way that caused my abdomen to seize, my spine to lilt, and my hands and feet to go numb. I can remember shuffling down the aisle of a Walgreens, looking for Advil; when I spotted a heads-up penny on the ground, I made the mistake of reaching for it. I couldn’t even achieve a hundred-degree angle―I looked like human drawbridge. The pain was extraordinary.
In the years to come, a specialist would explain that my lowest vertebra had fused to my pelvis, forcing every subsequent vertebra to overcompensate. I’ve since learned a series of exercises to strengthen my core muscles. I’ve also learned how not to bend, stretch or twist. Most significantly, I’ve learned to cope with intense, just-shy-of-crippling pain on a semi-regular basis.
Katherine Preston, the author of Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice (Atria Paperback), has also learned to cope with a handicap―in her case, a profound speech impediment that she developed at the age of 7. An exuberant child, Preston suddenly found it impossible to communicate with her family and peers. She experienced shame and frustration as a result of her stutter. What’s worse, speech impediments affect the delicate balance between speaking and breathing; Preston describes the sensation as being akin to drowning.
For years, she struggled with her handicap. Her parents encouraged her to try speech therapy―when that didn’t work, she resorted to silence. Finally, at the age of 24, Preston decided to leave her home in London, England and to travel across America, interviewing hundreds of other stutterers, as well as researchers and speech therapists. What began as a quest for insight turned into an exploration of self and resulted in a poignant memoir. If not for her handicap, Preston’s life would’ve been ineluctably different―but for better or worse, who can really say?
To be fair, nobody trumpets, Hooray for my handicap! I really enjoy this restrictive diet! It’s liberating to let other people care for me! But life with a handicap doesn’t leave time for bellyaching. Or rather, there’s nothing but time. Time to construe your limitations as the enemy. Time to construe yourself as the enemy. Eventually, the necessities of life overwhelm you―be it the necessity to avoid gluten or to ask someone else to reach that itch. I don’t want diminish anyone else’s suffering; but how we adapt to our afflictions, rather than the details of our afflictions, is of far greater consequence.
It’s been more than a decade since I shuffled down the aisles of that Walgreens. My back hasn’t improved much, insomuch as my lowest vertebra remains fused to my pelvis. However, I’m now the father of two young children, and children (mine included) are notoriously indifferent to the needs of an adult. The physical tolls of bath time will often require an Advil or two, and a piggyback ride can lay me out for an hour. Still, any pain I experience is irrelevant―their happiness comes first. In this way, my handicap is a affirmation of my love; what’s more, it defines me as a father and a man.
The Advil helps, too.