I have a past.
Those I tell about my past find it tragic, unbelievable, and hard to understand.
I want them to understand my past so that they’ll know that I am an intelligent, social, motivated, hardworking woman, not the misanthrope slacker I may appear to be to the casual observer. I want them to know that I’m making positive life choices and tackling challenging issues everyday, even if they are not immediately visible to the outside world, due to the cruel grip of past violence, reaching through time.
Japan progresses into the future with the complex issues of radioactive waste ever-present. Development and renewal in Haiti includes rebuilding after the earthquake. The America we build today for our children and grandchildren is built upon an America that experienced 9/11 and the Patriot Act. We may forgive the past, but it always continues to exist in the way it molds the present.
My preparations for sleep include putting a band-aid on my nose, threading floss through an oral appliance and braces, rinsing with hydrogen peroxide and oral wound care, turning on a white noise machine and a HEPA air purifier on high, propping myself up on pillows in hot-washed cases, tightly binding a strap around my chin, and attaching an air-blowing tube to my face.
If I’m lucky, I’ll wake up before noon, without sleep inertia, and untraumatized by any lingering nightmares – an encouraging start to my day.
My evenings and mornings – my evenings and mornings now – could have been like your evenings and mornings. But someone made a choice for me, more than twenty years ago, that this instead would be my life today.
Today, I can stand in line at the grocery store. I’m no longer sitting on the ground, in an ankle length dress, while I wait for the sales clerk to ring up my purchases. Today, as long as I remember to take my morning and afternoon medication, I can clumsily attempt a game of volleyball or tennis without needing to sit down between serves.** I can stand long enough to conduct my business professionally. If I were to join a tour through a museum or town, I would probably seek out a chair only once or twice. But this isn’t the way I lived for twenty years.
I make a note on my calendar on days I don’t have nausea, night sweats, dizziness, or hot flashes.
I know that if I go out for a Friday night of teetotaler fun, I’ll still be recovering on Monday.
Sometimes I skip a meal because I don’t have easy access to food that won’t make my symptoms worse.
I embrace the joys of being twenty-nine. The friends I can spend an evening with, or email or Skype. Beautiful afternoons in parks. The companionship of two quirky felines. The occasional party and obscenely long recovery period.
But when I meet a stranger at an event, and he inevitably asks me ‘What do you do?’, the answer resonates in my mind: ‘Not as much as you.’
Not out of lack of ambition. Not because I was born with a disability. Not because I was in an accident. Only because the individuals that the state gave complete control of my fate decided that my pain and the limitation of my life and potential wasn’t worth preventing or treating. My captors, in designer apparel, would corral me into their luxury vehicle, to be paraded before their high net-worth clients, boosting their social equity and enlarging their income. I must perform as a trained animal, smiling through my pain, submitting to verbal abuse when I sat before I fainted, suppressing my personality and self-identity and playing my role perfectly.
I lived in a dirty, dust-bunny-colonized room, with antique furniture, floral curtains, mold plated windows, and spiders between my sheets. If I read, I could mentally block out the sound of yelling, until its source burst into the space – and my face. I learned that the appropriate response was to immediately cower and obey: the longer I delayed, the more ensuing punishments would accumulate.
More than once a week, I was allowed the exercise of a supervised quarter mile walk. More than once a week, I was allowed an hour or two of supervised co-existence with children my own age in a structured educational context. The phone and television were off limits, but I was provided with instructional material in mathematics and grammar with which I could, and did, provide myself with an education.
The age of majority didn’t apply to me. I would live with my masters indefinitely, servicing their home and work and satisfying their needs for intimacy and emotional support.
Today, when I look a little awkward at that party, or move a little strangely when we do business, it’s because I’m still assimilating into your culture.
And assimilate I must. I do not have a native culture to return to or celebrate.
Is my story tragic, unbelievable, and hard to understand? That’s because you didn’t come from my world. I’m glad for that.
** This was true only briefly. A year after gaining my mobility, I lost it again to wrongly developed hips. Until I go under the knife and complete the ensuing recovery, volleyball and tennis, as well as moderate walks, are off the menu for me.