Last week, I attended an AMputee support group at Spaulding Rehab in Boston. During the meeting, the group’s facilitator described how a previous member, who was a lower limb amputee, would do an exercise with new members in which he would physically fall down onto the floor to show the group different techniques to get back up to a secure position. She went on to explain that participating in these guided falling exercises, helped restore a sense of resiliency, confidence, and independence to new Amputees who were encountering challenges in readjusting to their lives outside of the hospital.
Though I have my lower limbs, something inside me shifted as I listened to this discussion of the fear of falling. As days passed, I found myself thinking of the times in which I’ve fallen, the trouble I faced trying to get back on my feet, and my struggle in finding meaning in each journey.
Fall- Noun. failure, insufficiency; inability to reach
I started college a confident, bright eyed young woman eager to be immersed in all my university had to offer, but soon I realized my experiences would not be exactly what I’d hoped. At home in Atlanta, I was a Homecoming Queen, Valedictorian, an artist, a counselor, a daughter, a sister…a human being. As I entered a place where being politically correct supersedes normal human interactions, I became generically labeled by a term that I had always worked to reject: disabled. At Wesleyan, I was transformed into a woman with a handicapped identity. No amount of “PC” could limit the awkward glances at my arm or the discomfort some had when speaking to me. After a while, I grew tired of the awkwardness and developed a system:
1.Explain what happened.
2.Make a joke to clear the air.
4. Exchange awkward goodbyes.
5. Repeat with someone new.
For the first time in my life, I actually felt disabled. I grew tired of people acknowledging my amputation before they asked my name. I was over the shuffling, the stares, and especially that one girl that screamed at the sight of my arm. I had always considered myself a strong woman, but after a year’s worth of awkward conversations and no true progress I was tired and vulnerable. I was immersed into an environment that failed to satisfy my needs as an individual facing a physical challenge, and I found myself losing touch with my sense of self. I found myself starting to actually believe that I was disabled.
Fall- noun. brief moments of uncertainty
When I was 14 years old, I met a young man named Kentavius . Over the years that our friendship blossomed, Tae taught me life lessons in love and resilience. Time after time, I watched him face adversity, and to this very day, I’ve never seen someone get knocked down so much, and still manage to get up each time with a smile greater than the last. At Wesleyan, I was completely lost in trying to maintain this image of a capable, collected young woman for the sake of family and friends, but, Tae kept me grounded. Fortunately, I’d found a confidant who loved and accepted me for the entirety of who I was. I was lucky to have a gatekeeper of my secret sorrows that used the tools of unconditional love and acceptance to help me remedy my wounded spirit. He provided me with needed reassurance that I was unequivocally, unmistakably, beautifully, imperfectly human. He made falling not only easy, but also essential in embracing the beauty of the peaks and valleys of my self-acceptance. Tae celebrated everything about me, at a time I when couldn’t even accept everything about myself. He truly loved me simply for the sake of love and I loved him. When he died, I fell again-except this time I didn’t know how to get back up.
Fall- verb. to drop or descend under the force of gravity, as to a lower place through loss or lack of support.
When someone realizes they’ve fallen, one of their first reactions is to look up in an attempt to see if the distance of their descent is as great as they feel it is. If others are present as witnesses they may discredit their pain, say that they were overreacting, and rush them onto their feet. They may say things like:
“You have to be strong.”
“Don’t be so sensitive!”
“It could always be worse.”
I can’t even begin to describe how debilitating statements like these are. When we say these things (I say we, because I am also guilty) , we rob people of their self advocacy. We make it increasingly harder for them to assume a position of power in initiating their own personal healing. We also cause people to negatively view the time it takes for them to overcome challenges..In doing so, we have some beautiful heart being subjected to a botched, rushed healing process that is infected with negative self talk and criticism. As a result, you end up with a someone who is incredibly self critical, astonishingly guarded, and unceasingly hesitant in trusting others with their emotions.
After two years at Wesleyan and burying my best friend, that someone was me. Over and over again, I’d lost myself; again and again I was told that I had to be strong. And I was…until I got tired and lonely. Most importantly, I got tired of hiding my emotions. I got sick of letting my body and my experiences be subjected to the criticism of society. Over time, I began to open up to my loved ones about what exactly I was feeling as a one-armed woman grieving the loss of my identity and my dear friend.
I’ve learned a few important things through my “falls”. First, I hate when people tell you that you should hide your emotions stay guarded. For a long time, I was down, and because I was down for so long, I began to view my vulnerability with contempt. However as time progressed, I realized that was only because I mistook my vulnerability for weakness. It is essential to experiencing the most beautiful things in life. Unlike weakness, human vulnerability is the result of a conscious decision to be open enough to receive life’s gifts despite the risk of being hurt . In embracing our vulnerability, we not only make ourselves available to learn life’s most essential lessons, but we also allow room for ourselves to truly learn the intricacies of the power we posses in coming into entirety of our capabilities.
By giving in to the depth of our falls, we are able to not only conquer them, but also assume new heights and acquire new triumphs.
In loving memory of Kentavius Thomas Allison.