To Be Upright, To Be Fallen

Six weeks since the operation! According to all the info leaflets, this is a landmark for hip replacements. The risk for dislocation is reduced, the joint should be more stable leading to resuming everyday activities (including driving), and it’s possible to use one stick rather than two crutches. I feel that I have ‘achieved’ some of this (why ‘achieve’?). I’m managing stairs, being in the house on my own (with the help of my trolley and grab sticks), going out for a walk every day, having a shower, doing more exercises. So this is all good. And yet I’m still having to use two crutches, as the other hip, the un-operated one which was the worse one to begin with, is still very painful and stiff, so I need support for both sides. And I get some pain in the operated hip, particularly in the mornings, and if I’ve been sitting for a long time. Hopefully this is ‘normal’, recovery pain. I’m seeing the surgeon again in a few days, so will find out how he sees my progress then.

One of the reasons I’m stiff in the morning is due to still not sleeping well at night. I can lie on my left (un-operated) side for a while, but then feel a pull in the operated hip, so need to move onto my back again. I’ve become aware that my mattress feels a bit lumpy (I hadn’t noticed this before), and a combination of this and the movements has meant that my lower and mid back have become quite stiff, leading to a pulling in the groin on both sides, and a stoop in the morning that takes a bit of exercising to sort out. This stoop is putting extra strain on the hips until I’m able to stand upright properly. I’m thinking of ways to do deal with this. Getting a new mattress is tricky at the moment, so maybe a mattress topper would help.

Reflecting on the embodied experience of ‘healing’. of trying to become ‘normal’, I’m thinking about language, the embodied nature of language, and how this relates to our physical experiences in way that connects to mental states, ideas, and our sense of morality. Philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have talked about this in their book Philosophy In The Flesh:

‘Reason is not disembodied… but arises from the nature of our brains, bodies and bodily experience. … It is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment. The same neural and cognitive mechanisms that allow us to perceive and move around also create our conceptual systems and modes of reason. Reason is not, in any way, a transcendent feature of the universe or disembodied mind.’ (Lakoff & Johnson: 1999, 4)

Based on this view, they have explored the way we conceptualise, perceive, and understand the world, and how this is shaped by our bodymind experiences, ‘[b]ecause our conceptual systems grow out of our bodies, [therefore] meaning is grounded in and through our bodies’ (Lakoff & Johnson: 1999, 6). The embodied mind, in attempting to make sense of the world, creates metaphors that are inherently linked to the experience of the sensorimotor system. Lakoff and Johnson offer the example of the metaphor ‘More is Up, as in “Prices rose” and “Stocks Plummeted”. In the More is Up, a subjective judgement of quantity is conceptualised in terms of the sensorimotor experience of verticality’ (Lakoff & Johnson: 47) Similarly, a physical experience, such as the difficulty in lifting a heavy object, is related cognitively in the mind to the experience of the difficulty of coping with responsibilities and problems. This cognitive connection is repeated until it becomes established as a pattern, and the conceptual metaphor arises:

  Difficulties are Burdens
Subjective judgement: Difficulty
Sensorimotor Domain: Muscular exertion
Example: “She’s weighed down by responsibilities.
Primary Experience: The discomfort or disabling effect of lifting or carrying heavy objects. (Lakoff & Johnson: 50)

In this way, the physical experience of being ‘upright’ equates to a moral sense of character: ‘she’s an upright person’, ‘stand tall and proud’, ‘be an upstanding citizen’. The other side of this is to be non-upright, to be physically affected in a way that results in being bent, curved, stooped, crippled, ‘weighed down with responsibility’, limping, stumbling, and ultimately, falling and fallen. All these terms have ‘negative’ connotations in our language relating to character: ‘she stumbled into a life of crime’, ‘she stooped so low’, ‘limping through life’, ‘falling into despair’, and, of course, being a ‘fallen woman’. Language we use to describe physical disabilities and ‘abnormalities’ are cognitively linked to being a person of alterity – not the ‘norm’, not ‘proper’, not ‘whole’ and moral. It’s no wonder this is reflected in attitudes in society, when people with disabilities have been hidden away, a source of shame, marked with some form of sin they must have committed to lead to a deformed body. And reflected in works of art, where such a figure is often isolated, morally questionable, afflicted in body, mind, and soul. And even if not physically, they can be morally disabled, hence the ‘fallen woman’. The embodiment of the sinful, immoral woman who does not stand upright, who trips and falls into a life of deprivation and promiscuity. These women need to be redeemed, reformed,, to feel penitence and rehabilitated through being purged of their immorality, to stand upright again. If they’re lucky enough to survive this – I come back to Hans Anderson’s versions of the stories of the Little Mermaid and Red Shoes again, in which both women characters have their moment of realising their sins, a blast of redemption – and then die. There’s no happy ending for the Fallen Woman.

How do we decouple language relating to a ‘disabled’ body and embodied experience from being cognitively connected to these kinds of judgements about the person? To reclaim stooping, limping, tripping, and falling as being ‘normal’, a result of a physical condition rather than some form of reflection of an inferior character? Positive images of disability are hugely important, and yet often so lacking. Perhaps the increased interest and viewing of the Paralympics is leading a greater understanding of the able-ness of supposedly non-able bodies. But theatre, film, television, visual arts, and literature still abound with reinforcing images of physical ‘impairments’ leading to a character being pitied or despised.

I want to be free of pain, to walk upright, without a limp, to not be looked at by people when they walk past, to not feel like the ‘other’ due to being born with a set of conditions that have led to the current state of my body. But how do I embrace all this without the operation being seen as ‘correcting’ the deformity? Of ‘achieving’ an upright stance and being more ‘normal’? I still don’t know how much the operations will really work to enable me to be pain-free and walk without a stick – I guess I’ll find out over the next number of months. But the experience I’ve had of feeling pain, limping, falling, being ‘disabled’ is now part of my life story, and has made me think about the language we use to describe these experiences, and how this connects to how we perceive and relate to people with ‘disabilities’, ‘impairments’, ‘abnormalities’.

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