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When What ‘Holds Us Back’ is What Holds Us Up

Country scene with sun rise peeking between trees.

…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.

Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

Legs seems to be in the news a lot these days. Women’s legs of course. It’s hard to imagine a man’s legs giving cause for so many miles of copy to be written opining on the relationship between legs and character or judgement or worth or ability to undertake a professional task. As I watched the misogynistic marginalia that so often masquerades as journalism these days scroll by, I found my mind wandering back a few years.

“Oh poor thing, how sad for it. Do you want me to work on it too?” An unlikely sentence to precipitate an emotional outpouring. But precipitate an outpouring it did. For the first time since I had acquired the MS nerve damage that had (despite my best efforts at exercising it) been eating away the muscles in my left leg and reducing my ability to lift my foot properly, my left leg was to be the object of my compassion, and later my pride and gratitude.

I’d gone for a massage on my right leg, just my right leg I had firmly told her. My “good leg”. Doing so much work to compensate for my “bad leg’ was creating a lot of wear and tear on it. Needless to say, my right leg had come to feel supremely important. Without it walking would be impossible. I spent huge amounts of time thinking about it. Worrying about it. Every niggle or spasm overthought. Every cut or scratch or bump over-attended too. Care lavished on it. My other leg was an afterthought, or more accurately a banished thought. I couldn’t bear to look at it, I hated the feel of it – so different from the other leg which was free of the loss of sensation both touch and proprioceptive that afflicted the left.

When that physiotherapist referred so caringly to my left leg I was overwhelmed by the realisation of how much I had disassociated myself from my “weakness”. From this thing I dragged around with me everyday. The thing that slowed me, caused so much pain and discomfort, kept me awake at night, pulled me off balance, stopped me doing so many of things I once loved. ‘What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’ was missing a coda as far as I was concerned:   ‘though we will harbour ill will towards it nonetheless’. But with that physio’s words, like a cork un-skilfully loosed from a Champagne bottle, all my conflicted, sad, angry, confused feelings about being impaired bubbled over. My physio reassured me quickly, telling me this happened a lot. Having someone else touch caringly the thing that you have come to hate often unlocked strong emotions.

I can’t say my negative feelings about my left leg changed over night. But slowly over time I learnt to listen to the things it wanted to tell me. That it was strong in a different way. That it responded to love and attention just as much as my other leg. That it may be impaired but it’s still a part of me, still has a role to play in my life. Just not the role I thought it would play. That it had things to teach me still. Reading so many articles focussing on womens’ appearances and not their actions I was reminded of that day in the physio room. Reminded of how easy it is to fall for the crude stereotypes so much of society seeks to force down our throats. Good and bad. Worthy and not worthy. Useful and not useful. Valued and not valued.

I was also reminded of this again recently watching the video of a dad talking about his feelings about his child with Down’s Syndrome. Reacting to his failure to explain clearly to someone that his child’s difference brought joy and beauty to his life, he was overwhelmed with the emotion of realising that in a world full of prescribed boxes for right and wrong, good and bad (people, behaviour, abilities) the world was refusing to know that his child’s difference was not a source of shame but of power and love. That he was being lifted up by the thing so many thought was holding him back.

It’s a realisation I recognise from my life as a parent too. I seem to spend so much of my time trying to stop myself and others putting my children into boxes. Trying to undo the damage we inflict on ourselves and others when we buy lazily into those stereotypes and narratives. Trying to see what is really there, and not what I have been pre-programmed to see, to value, to love. Allowing myself to be held by their uniqueness, their being, and not hold back by some pre-determined notion of what and how they should be. 

It’s not easy to shake off those stereotypes of course. I slip often. My MS relapsed recently and as I emerge from that time my resolve to treat MS as a part of me and a valued teacher weakens, as it often does. When a relapse pops up I get pre-occupied by being busy ‘coping’. It’s when it begins to remit that my fears and lazy, infected, thinking fill my mind with thoughts of weakness, fill my heart with fears and anxieties. Those lazy, misogynistic accounts of women’s actions reminded us that society will still try to use their gender against them. Just as the fact that they are not bowed or stopped by the reaction reminds us all that try as you might using a women’s gender to ascribe weakness or any other negative trait or behavior is no longer a guarantee that you will hold them back.

My left leg, my children, each new day, all are constantly teaching me that what the world wants us to think is holding us back is often the very thing that holds us up. We just need to remember to stop now and again and look carefully in the very moment.

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