Accepting

It’s been nearly seven years since I had a stroke. My entire left side was paralyzed, and I spent several days in intensive care before finishing out the week in a hospital bed; from there, I was moved to an inpatient rehabilitation center. That was my home for three weeks. During those three weeks, I basically did not leave the facility grounds. I had a lot of visitors, a lot of physical and occupational therapy, a brief stint of speech therapy until they decided my cognitive abilities had made it through intact. Seven years later, and I remember it all as if it just happened.

One of the things I remember the most, though, was a shifting in perspective. When I first arrived at the rehab center, the focus was on healing. Working my ass off to try and get better, going all-in on tasks that would have once been done without a thought; things that, in those weeks, took every ounce of effort I could muster. I remember when my arm started swinging wildly at my suggestions again. I remember punching my occupational therapist, Stephanie, in the face three times in one day. She took it in stride. I had to learn how to sit up, how to stand, how to use a wheelchair. I had to learn to walk, with varying support devices.

I remember very vividly a shift in perspective, a shift in focus, in the final days before my release. Up until then, my every moment there was spent focusing on the goal of regaining function. It was a dedicated effort, from myself and from the doctors and therapists helping me. I was there for one thing, and one thing only: to get better, to return to my old self piece by piece, to retrain my damaged mind. I was there to fight the things that had struck me down, to push back and find myself again. On not-quite-release day, I remember being told something new and different.

I was told to accept “the new normal”.

It was such a beautiful and grotesque thing to hear. “The new normal”; at once a hopeful recognition of how far I’d come, and a condemnation of how far I’d never go. It was one of the first times I’d been given a message of anything other than pushing myself to repair; this was a message of accepting limitations that could not be overcome by the methods employed at this place. By methods employed at any place. Yes, I was still there to get better, but I was also being told that I had to prepare myself — mentally and physically — for a challenging existence outside of those bleached-white halls and nurses on call. I’d be taking a wheelchair home. I’d be wisely instructed to buy a walker or a cane. My physical therapist strongly urged that my family and I move; we had a two-story townhome, and it was hard to know when I might make it up the stairs to my bed, my shower, my child’s room.

Accept the new normal. Know your limitations, know your boundaries. Manage expectations, and make peace with the barriers that won’t be coming down.

It felt like an impossible task, to simply take at face value that this was as good as it would get. Of course, even after being released from the facility, I was back inside three times a week for outpatient therapy sessions. Exercise bikes, treadmills, weightlifting equipment, electro-stimulation. Still pushing myself, and still being made aware of where the limits were. After a few months of this, the calendar turned to a new year; with that, the medical bills began to pile up again. I’d already been ruined by being unable to work, and simply could not afford to go. I stopped seeing the physical therapist after receiving January’s bill.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and not just in terms of my still-present physical limitations. While I’ve recovered probably 95% of my function, that last 5% is something I’ve had to accept is just gone. My left arm’s dexterity isn’t going to magically return, though I can use it well enough to type, play video games, tie my shoes — all things I had to learn again at 27. My left leg is much the worse for wear; I’ll never run, dance, hike, or jump the way I once did. That’s simply the way it is, and I’ve come to terms with it well enough. It’s the new normal. It’s my reality.

Sometime between the medical bullshit and today, I had enough time and exposure to ideas to piece together that I’m transgender. That, too, is a new normal; it’s as much a part of my as my unresponsive foot, as real as the toes I can see and feel but can’t bend. It’s as much a struggle to grasp as the rings and pegs my therapists had me working with my left hand when I was trying to learn to be me again. It gnaws at me in so many ways — not the least of which is my financial and societal holdups that prevent me from being the me that I see within myself. Unless, of course, these are the convenient lies I tell myself to force myself into acceptance of this new normal. I can’t tell the difference.

The new normal, too, extends far beyond some physical or mental sense of self; it’s not just who I am, it’s the world in which I live. It’s accepting the hate and bigotry that exists around me, that I must accept as real if I’m to stand within this place and ever say or do anything meaningful. It’s the way I cast aside the small joys I used to love when I find myself spiralling, because I begin to feel selfish and undeserving. It’s the whispers in the back of my mind that maybe all the hateful shits in the world that say that being who I am is nothing more than a mental disease, a desperate cry for attention from an entitled child in an adult body. I can’t deny feeling this way a lot, nor can I deny feeling unable to outright reject the feelings. After all, if that was really who I was, wouldn’t I find a way to put that face forward?

Never mind the fact that my job is changing, and I don’t even have anyone to go to right now for scheduling time off to see a doctor. Never mind the fact that it terrifies me to show up to work one day dressed in the clothes I wish I owned. Never mind, of course, the fact that I have no funds to buy those clothes because of the summer crunch of childcare costs. Or how horrible I’d feel if those children faced bullying at the hands of cruel children who saw what I was and used this as ammunition. The confusion my own children would feel seeing their dad all done up, the stares from strangers and coworkers and former friends. I know, of course, that I have support. I have love. I cannot and will not deny it, but I also cannot deny a certain trepidation, a fear that it might slip away if I swing too hard into the person I want to be.

Accepting the new normal. Recognizing limitations. Finding boundaries that will not be crossed. The edges of my own reality are sometimes constraining, even when the logic behind their formation is clear, the reason for their existence recognizable. Not every mountain is meant to be climbed, not every shore is meant to be reached. It’s becoming harder for me to know which ones are which, to tell the difference between where I cannot go and where I am subconsciously holding myself back. The lines between where I cannot go and where I simply will not are blurred and I find myself receding.

Sometimes I want to burn down everything I am to see what rises from the ashes; sometimes I know the dangers of even thinking this. I wish that I could tell the difference between accepting the new normal and placing unnecessary restrictions on my own existence. I wish that I could simply wake up one day and feel like the skin I’m wearing is what I want. I wish that I had the words or the wherewithal to be open and honest about this anywhere but here. I want to push myself, to learn and grow into the person I want to be, but every time I try I find myself plagued with doubt and insufficiency.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. I don’t know if these words will help anything, or if it’s just another scream into the void. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

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