Thursday, September 19, 2013

Pushing Yourself I

Lest you think this is all Ironside, all the time ...  something different.  As I was writing the paragraph on "pushing yourself" in the previous post, I realized that I had to spend more time with the concept.  I thought it would be a short post -- an Ironside interlude.  As it turns out, "pushing yourself" is probably a two part series: the personal and political/cultural.

Pushing yourself is, on the whole, intended to be a good thing.  It's one of those casual phrases that we hear in news reports, in professional evaluations, common conversations.  Sometimes, it's a personal goal -- to push yourself to do better, more.  Funny how you don't usually push yourself to do less -- even though that might be more work.  You can push yourself to work out more, run faster or further.  To be successful, you have to push yourself,

... because no one is going to do it for you.
... to your limit.
You will never know your limits unless you ... to them.
Keep calm and ....
... and make it happen.

We have created a society that believes success is created from within and that you, alone, are responsible for your success.

I'm realizing how insidious these quietly accepted motivationals are -- to disability community in general and to wheelchair users in particular.  The mind doesn't always keep things separate.  Under the guise of processing or remembering, our brains sift, sort, and smoothen; one thing slides softly into another, and before we know it, sententious external motivators become prescriptions about the best way to live and move in the world.  That which once was figurative becomes painfully literal.  Every physical therapist, doctor, friend who has urged me to push myself has meant it literally and figuratively.  Now, the phrase is no longer neutral.

I am perhaps inordinately proud of my ability to push myself.  In the years that I have been a wheelchair user, I have seen my strength and stamina grow; my skill set has increased.  I now move easily through the world with what I hope is a powerful and yet fluid stroke.  I remember how tired I would get pushing from our apartment to the nearest accessible subway; how I was unable to complete even the tiniest of hills in San Francisco.  Some days, I was defeated by the slope of the pavement.  Now, with the exception of the hills in San Francisco, these things are at worst pains in the proverbial.

I enjoy the feeling of pushing myself.  There's a reassuring rhythm to the cycle of breath, body, shoulder, hand, and wheel.  I count pushes; I consciously lengthen my stroke, let my hands fly off the wheel, and stretch into the release at the end of the stroke.  I play with inhaling and exhaling on the push.  I love the rise through my spine and the deep connectedness to the ground.  Even the scurry across the street can be fun.  Wheeling is a physical pleasure.

Several times in my wheeled life, I have lost the ability to push myself.  Shoulder injuries.  Always from dancing, aggravated by hypermobility and wear and tear.  The combination of these things scares me.  All manual wheelchair users end up with wrecked shoulders -- the body is not designed to locomote in this way.  My shoulders are at extra risk given their daily load and their flexibility.  And when they are gone, I will mourn the loss of this particular physicality.  Then like all the other manual wheelchair users, I will hop in my power chair and/or ask to be pushed.

To be sure, some of my fear around this transition is environmental.  I won't be able to throw my chair in my hatchback, hop high curbs, easily maneuver the gap between train, platform, and wall, take the escalator, or, among other things, bump down stairs.  And so what?  This is true for so many of my friends; they live their lives.  I will as well.  There's no need for me to think of the transition as anything more than a neutral change.  But I do, because I hear in the back of my head all those voices that have told me to push myself.

I've written here of my personal fears, but disability is both political and personal.  The things that scare me are personal, but they are situated in policy, history and culture.  How I move through the world -- self-pushed, pushed by someone else, or by power chair -- is open for interpretation.  That interpretation is a consequence of how our culture handles disability.  Independence is important for people with disabilities.  The people in our civil rights movement fought and continue to struggle for the right to live independently -- outside the institution -- and interdependently in the community.

Whether we can succeed is often wrongly judged by how much people think we can do on our own.  This is world of money and judgment is part of the culture in which I locomote self- or partner- propelled.  More on that in the next post.


  1. I believe the most frightening thing about living with a progressive disability is the continual erosion of what one can do.I try to focus on what I can do, and occasionally find ways to extend the range of what is possible. Yet the gnawing fear of the next loss remains. As you note,this seems hard for others, even health care providers,to grasp. In Native culture, the we is more important than the I, and there is acknowledgement that everyone needs aid and offers aid. I hope this subversive idea manages to swim upstream against the rising tide and infiltrate the culture at large, and does so in my lifetime.

  2. Thanks for the comment...It is odd you should mention meeting, I was reminded of you when I saw a poster in my local market for an upcoming event with a wheelchair dancer....and you know that thing you do when you just wonder if that connection is about to become very strong indeed...?

  3. Anonymous10:59 AM

    Great article! And I thought that I was the only woman who thought it is pleasureable to push. I do enjoy it; not only that I can do it, but at this point in my life I WANT to do it.