RE-CALCULATING (Part 2)*
I was 19 going on 20 when I was injured. I was in my rebellious phase and angry all the time, drinking and drugging a lot. I had dropped out of high school and at 17 came west on my own. I can't remember what I was so angry about.
One summer day my friends and I are going swimming over at Wreck Beach, pretty loaded on drugs and alcohol and goofing around (pause) hmph that didn't sound like so much fun…(exaggerated enjoyment) pretty loaded on drugs and alcohol and goofing around and "last one in is a rotten egg" kind of thing and I dive deeply into a shallow wave and that was that. My head smashes into the ocean floor and the impact severely damages my spinal cord. I can remember just after it happen I can't move anything, can't feel anything – face down in the water – there is no fight – I can't even struggle. I feel quite…calm. My girlfriend Stacey and my friends think I'm pretending to be dead. Stacey dives in and sees that my eyes are open and then they drag me onto the beach. About a half an hour later, the hovercraft arrives but before that we all had to wait. All I could see was a sea of faces. My big concern is I had heard war stories about soldiers who would get spontaneous bowel movements and reflex erections in some traumatic situations. This is what I am actually thinking, and I ask her to check, her eyes dart down quickly and back up and she nods, I did have one…an erection that is. She puts a towel over me. It looks like a pup tent. I remember getting to VGH and throwing up and the next day I was in the Shaughnessy Spinal Cord Unit, they had just opened and I am their first acute, very cute patient. And we can smoke in our rooms. They have these head striker frames, it's like a stabilizing vice grip on your head, which is how they move me, and turn me. After that I have a Halo Brace, which they don't use much anymore. It's a hard shell vest that attaches to your head and around your chest, so you can't move. I'm still in a state of shock. I have no idea that this is going to last my lifetime, I haven't started any recovery yet. It took such a long time to know to what extent I was going to recover, I'm thinking of it like a broken arm. Stacey would come into my room and close the curtain and have sex with me, not like we used to but I definitely still have the urge. (aside)We work out a few things. And there are a bunch of guys in Rehab and I develop a strong bond with them and we have a pretty good time, considering. They were a different kind of peer group than I was used to. I'm in an acute care ward for 3 months and in rehab for 9 months. Then I start to overhear conversations that made me think I not going to fully recover and I start to make deals with God. (prayer) "I'll change my bad ass ways Lord, if only I can be like I was" . Looking back on it now, I can say that the injury likely saved me. I was pretty reckless with my life up to that point and I had a few very close brushes with death. Some of my drinking and drugging buddies did die and others went to prison. Then all of a sudden Stacey wants to marry me. Why did she want to marry me now? I'm 19 and she's 26. And I'm also cheating on her. I want to end it and don't know how except to be quite cruel, (feel this a bit) which I regret. (pause) Independence, is now my core value and purpose. Dependency is something negative. (intensity)I'm going to be the one deciding how I want to live my life, who I want to see, what I want to do and when I want to get up and go to bed. Every time I feel even a flicker of movement in my toe, I demand to be retested but the results were always the same. After a while I stop asking.
After my partial recovery, I go back to Ontario for a high school upgrading program but quit that too and then I apply to Guelph and get in as a mature student, starting off taking one course. You know, when you have a spinal cord injury, again it's not only about not walking like I said before, but it's also about the loss an adult identity, And having bladder and bowel accidents, is not what adults do. I don't get the same kind of "I have to pee or I have to poo" message. The peeing goes into a bag strapped to my leg. In fact, I could be peeing right now and you'd never know it. But defecating, that can just happen. And this is my greatest fear that I would be trapped in public somehow, like in class and I'd have a bowel movement. And in fact this did happen one time on stage and all I can do is just sit in it. I can't feel it but I sure can smell it and even if no one else notices, I still feel humiliation and shame, like a helpless child. (drink or drag). Back when I was doing my undergrad, I have to sit at the front of class where there's space. In those days with the big lecture halls, it meant I'm at the same level as the instructor. If I'm not already exposed enough, I have to be right at the front with the teacher with all my muscle spasms. And I have the same reaction as Sheila to needing a note taker and writing exams in a different room. I am centred out again. What really used to piss me off though was waiting for an elevator in a 3 or 4 floor building. The elevator doors would open and it's full of healthy able bodied students and not one of them offers up their space and uses the stairs. I would never take another elevator my whole life if it meant I could use my legs again.
You remember when I said I had a life before and that I could compare and remember. Well, I became aware of my self hatred because I could point to it, at my disability, and this made me see it. And in seeing it, I realize it was also there before my injury. I wasn't very conscious back then but I remember I always…felt this…(find the word) void. I don't know what I'm doing or where I'm going. It is not a carefree life. I have huge resistance to authority and intellectuals and I'm in a lot of some kind of pain and I 'm contemplating suicide on a regular basis.
Because my body is so altered and the change so drastic and so in my face, I realize how I only see myself as my body, live through my body and all my sensory experiences that I'm abusing. It made me realize that I'm acting out all my emotional pain with: affairs with older and married women, drugs and alcohol, taking risks and other reckless and dangerous activities.(drag) Mind you, that realization did not make me change my behaviour at all… But still there was this gradual movement towards a more conscious life.
My avoidance of feeling emotional pain has always been a big obstacle for me in my life. And even though I know now and have experienced that the imagined pain, I was afraid of feeling is never as bad as the constant pain I'm actually in, from not allowing myself to feel my pain I'm afraid of feeling. I still stop myself again and again from feeling my pain. Does that make any sense?
A few weeks ago, my neighbour Patty asked me to look after her 2 goldfish Brittany and Bob for a week while she was away. This involves feeding, and keeping the water levels up. So I'm looking at her, straight in the eyes but I'm not with her at all, I'm not in the moment, I feel myself getting lost, foggy and disconnected from her. And I don't have the courage to say: I don't have time right now, or hey, I'm not interested in taking care of your fucking fish or I don't want to talk to you, ever again. I'm too busy being good. I want to be perceived in a positive way. I just nod and pretend I actually understood her directions. If I could have just told the truth – that I didn't want to babysit her fish, Brittany and Bob, would be alive today.
I'm still afraid of my father or at least there's that small child in me afraid of being held by one hand, over a cliff by the neck, dangling, being annihilated…always waiting for the other shoe to drop my whole life. He's what one psychiatrist coined "narcissism gone bad." My mom had left my father in charge of me one day at a summer cottage. He warns me not to go near the cliff, that the fence is unsafe. But being almost two, and he's tired of having his work constantly being disrupted, by keeping me away from the cliff and so he wants to cure me of going near the cliff once and for all, which he did. I remember him saying years later, that "it sure did the trick."
What are you afraid of? What's happening in your belly right now or your heart? Can you notice what's going on anywhere in your body? Is there tightness, a softness, a relaxation, a contraction an expansion?
When I catch myself feeling uncomfortable, and that's an important first step – noticing what I'm feeling and (higher energy) there's that space again, I have the time to see what that feeling is about. The other day I met a burn victim, her face is really disfigured and she's missing part of her lower lip and I'm totally uncomfortable looking at her. I look away as gracefully as I could, but she feels it, I can tell. And I feel her hurt and my shame and then I know that this is just a normal first time experience and I'm able to forgive myself. I go over to her and ask if she has a minute to chat. She's quite cold towards me and I feel hurt and misunderstood and then a flash of anger and I almost tell her to fuck off and walk away, then I get confused and sort of frozen. I completely forget that she is having her own experience and I'm not the centre of her universe. But then the silence is broken when she says, but I did sort of and I tell her of my experience and that now I know the hurt from both sides and I ask her to forgive me any hurts I may have caused her. She tells me that it happens so often that she keeps her heart pretty closed in public, most of the time and that yes she is hurt. She says she appreciates my apology and my coming over but that it's not her job to make me feel better. As she left, I realize the truth of what she said and yes, mixed up in my genuine feelings of compassion for her is the wanting for her to think of me as a good person. And I see the role again, the identity of a good person I need to maintain.
(pick up cigarette)I quit smoking a while back because I sensed it was in my way. My life is all about when I can have the next smoke. I love it too much: the best possible distraction, the best possible way to numb myself, especially if I add the drink and the drugs and the women. The best part is that I have a lot of company, bars full of people just like me and we all have a deal, we all have an agreement and we never speak of it because we didn't know. And the deal is not to know. Of course electric cigarettes don't count.
After my injury, I make lots of deals with myself to stay alive, I become totally future orientated: looking forward to the Super Bowl or sleeping with women I haven't slept with yet…anything to keep me going. Of course there is a part of me that wants things to be different, the way they "should" be. Where did I get the idea that I know, what should be?
Do you remember a few years ago that incident with our first openly gay politician Svend Robinson. What was he doing when he stole that ring from the store? Remember that? And then a while later he returned the ring and took responsibility for what he did. Well I don't know, but I can guess that when he was in the store he went unconscious…went to sleep. Something triggers him and he takes himself to be a younger identity, he unknowingly is feeling some pain and he needs to fill the hole inside him. In that moment he is the little kid again and he has to do something so he takes that ring.
I'm on Granville Island one Saturday last summer, outside the main food court by the docks and it's quite lovely with all the folks and children and live entertainment. A few of these kids are throwing bread to the pigeons in the centre of all this and an elderly man comes up to one of these kids and intensely scolds him for feeding the birds. I didn't hear what he said but I see the result, the child – maybe 4 or 5 years old walks away and sits by himself on a bench with his back towards everyone and I can see he's been shamed. The elderly person, he sees this too as he looks over his shoulder on the way back to his seat. I see the confusion in his face and the regret, but he doesn't know how to fix it. The man and the boy don't know each other. As I'm leaving, I go over to the boy who is now with his mom, and said that I saw what happened and that the man was wrong to have yelled at him. I want to deflate the shame a little. I say it as gently as I can and go to touch his hand but he pulls it away. And then I realize he didn't want me there and I had extended his shame by going over and trying to fix it and make him feel better. (pause)
That old man sort of reminds me of my father. When I first start to wear an ear stud, my father thinks it means I'm gay. He is so upset, he can't talk. I finally decide to take it out, I don't want to give him a heart attack. It kind of feels like emotional blackmail but I'm not strong enough to continue wearing it in the face of his pain.
I guess everyone relates to things from their own perspective. And I think that's a problem. How many times have I discovered that my feelings in a certain situation were actually about something else, often coming from a younger me. I always think I know the truth of my feelings or what they mean, but I don't always.
I've come to recognize that underneath the surface of let's say – not wanting to learn how to sail or pursue relationship, there are the feelings going on that protect me from being hurt. You know, like the feeling I can't do it so I don't try, or I have to be perfect, the feeling that I'm not worthy and I'm unlovable, the feeling that says it never works out for me. There are hundreds of them. (disgust) It's suffocating. None of this is who I am.
But even when I recognize these feelings, it's hard to let them go, they feel like old friends that helped me survive my childhood. As a kid and even as an adult to be honest, I'd always try and avoid my father. I remember just wanting to be invisible so I wouldn't get embarrassed or humiliated. And so I make myself small when I'm at home, around people, in the neighbourhood and especially at school and I never try anything new and it works, this belief about myself, keeps me safe. It's like I'm a kid drowning from the pain of being unlovable and I find a life preserver for being invisible. Later when I was older, I see a choir at school, I'm excited and I want to sing in the choir too. I see this strategy of staying small for the first time. This life preserver had saved my life in my younger years but now I'm standing on the dock with a wet life preserver on and it doesn't feel so good. I had survived but now it's in my way. It's hard to leave my old 'lets be small' friend, I feel lost for a while, but I do leave it, I take off that life preserver. And I start to sing.
(Jonathan closes his eyes and connects deeply with himself and starts to sing... )
Blue skies smiling at me
(An awakening moment full of insight and discovery) Oh my God where did that come from. I love that. I love that. I feel like I'm me, (realizing what you know) It's the very same thing that happens when I play music, go sailing or laugh out loud. Yes I now go sailing, solo. I faced that fear and I found the joy underneath.
(delighted with insight)I'm beginning to understand something. This is what life is really all about for me – feeling alive and it only happens in the here and now. This is so exciting. I realize that it's during these times that having a disability doesn't matter, nothing matters at all. The more I experience myself, the more liberated and carefree I am. The more I am, the more I am… (long pause)
Ya, that makes me think of my discomfort with the burn victim – her name is Claudia. (a real questioning)I don't know why I didn't say her name before. With Claudia, I notice that when I feel my discomfort, there is a sharp pain and tightness in my chest and I breathe into it and something remarkable happens. It starts to open up. I flash on this memory: I'm 14 just starting high school and it's the first time for showers after gym and as I'm changing, a bully points out to everyone that I don't have any pubic hair and they all laugh and I put my clothes back on and run out of there. It seems like just a little thing, but it plants yet another seed and that seed gets watered by other hurts and I never let myself feel them fully and I start getting small and shutting down. But with Claudia, this old wound comes back and later that night I did let myself feel it deeply and when I did, all this space opens up in my chest and I feel a distinct joyful lightness.
It's hard to stay there though, even now I'm involved with arranging to have a live in attendant. My biggest fear is the exposing my body openly. I wrestle with how I can still have my privacy and preserve some kind of self image when they are cleaning my body and wiping my bum. Right now I've got 4 to ten different people coming in during the week. It's so easy to fall into the trap of thinking and feeling I am my body. But again, when I get quiet and connected, I feel less oppressed by it all. But then, another fear comes in about when I'm older, what if I'm in more pain or face more limitations? What will I feel then?
And I ask myself sometimes, you know when I watch certain films or slam into some physical barrier or get rejected, if I want to be someone different than who I am, have someone else's life, do I want your life, do I want to be you? And from that deepest part of me, a truth arises with pristine clarity and it's so clear, that I want to be me, the unfettered me. I need to be. I don't want to lose my new sense of self and things that I have learned that are liberating me: (lightly) I have a body but it doesn't define me. (pause) I guess I really don't know who I am, but I'm excited and curious about this journey…it seems to be never ending.
And I get that I'm not every ones' cup of tea. But don't like me because I'm an asshole not because I look different. Like me because I've got a sense of humour or for my intelligence – you can even love me if you get to know my heart a little. Well, maybe we all need to get to know our hearts a little bit better. I think love is there all the time and mostly I don't let myself feel it much unless there is an external stimulus. I am still so externally focused, in everything I do and every way. I always thought that love starts from the outside in but it doesn't, it doesn't, it comes from inside out. And it's mine or it's me. (feeling confusion) I'm starting to feel confused a little, but I sense this love, that is me, is somehow boundless, limitless and it can't be depleted. I don't know but it's interesting…I know I am not my body, am I my personality, my heart, my soul, my mind, it's so interesting…who am I?
(Jonathan starts to roll away and then stops and turns and as an after thoughts says..)
Think of the person you love most in your life: your best friend, a girlfriend or boyfriend, a sibling, a parent, a child and what if this person suddenly became severely disabled. How would your heart be. What would it mean?(Jonathan starts to sing Blue Skies and rolls off stage. )
*"Re-Calculating" is a one act monologue spoken by an actor who introduces himself only as Jonathan. Part 1 can be read in the June 2013 issue of Wordgathering.