The Horse is Me
Yesterday, I felt a twitch in my leg, and the rest of the afternoon was a wash.
Let me rewind a little bit.
Last year at exactly this time, I was trapped on the floor of a cabin in the New Hampshire woods, unable to crawl to the bathroom, intermittently chugging a warm carton of shelf-stable soy milk because it was the only sustenance I could reach. I was in terrible pain. Or rather, anytime I moved from one very specific position (facedown, leg propped slightly outward on a pillow, unmoving) I was in terrible pain.
I think I should rewind even further.
For a lot of my life, I treated my body like an appliance. That is, it was mostly strong and able and did what it was meant to do: carry me through my life (a life of pretty extreme lifestyle choices) without much interruption. I felt sort of proud of this (a fact that now makes me ashamed), but mostly I didn’t think about it at all. Then, the clock on that (very ordinary) delusion ran out. I’ll spare you most of the stops on the journey from there to here—I’ve written about it in The Sun and The New York Times, and am working on a longer thing—but the short of it is that my body will no longer accept its former designation. Now, she is the star of the show.
Here’s another, better analogy. About six years ago, when my great humbling in this area began (and my pain did), I had a conversation with a friend in which I told her that I had always thought of my body and self as separate. My body was the horse, and I its rider.
I’m beginning to suspect, I began, and she interrupted me—
That there is no horse?
Yes, I said. Or, that I am the horse. The horse is me. It’s all me. It’s me I’ve been kicking all of these years.
Last year, I came to understand in an unprecedented way how privileged I am by love. My 65-year-old mother dropped everything and drove seven hours to scrape me off the floor of that cabin in New Hampshire. In the days that followed, she comforted and cared for me in ways she hadn’t since I was an infant. Basically every time I think of it, I start to cry (including now, as I type this). Not out of self pity, or even grief, but in heart-cracking gratitude. Everyone should be so lucky to be loved like that. No, really, everyone should. When I finally got home to Iowa weeks later, my incredible wife* continued with her own practice of loving care, which is ongoing.
During all those years that I was kicking my horse and not thinking about it, I was also repelled by the idea of needing care. Needing anything, really. I worshipped at the altar of self-sufficiency. I wanted to be tough. The idea of being needy filled me with terror and disgust. About this, too, I now feel ashamed, as well as some kinder emotions. What amazing ignorance and innocence such a position exudes (not to mention the internalized sexism, ableism, and particular white Americanness). How lucky I was to indulge it for so many years. How immature. It’s not that I didn’t understand the value of vulnerability and (inter)dependence, but more that it remained a choice in my mind, and one I’d mostly rather not make.
These days, I am not fully recovered. My condition may not be one from which I will ever recover, least of all from my former ability to not think about my body, or to think of it as a horse. On my most spiritually fit days, I am almost grateful for this, the growth it ensures. I am, no question, a better person for having been humbled. And I am often pain free, able to do most of the things I want to do. There are questions that I worry (sometimes verging on obsession) every day, about surgery, about the possible limits of my future. And my body’s symptoms stoke these questions.
Yesterday, the twitch in my leg found me in a sensitive place. I was home alone, hormonal, and it’s been brutally cold outside. I keep reading articles that contain the phrase “civil war.” I keep reading articles about voting rights and feeling consumed with rage and despair. I cannot fathom the cruelty humans are capable of, and yet I fathom it every day. So when I felt the twitch in my leg, the fear flared in me like its own kind of horrible inflammation. It was a fear of pain, and of disruption, of powerlessness, and of a world so bereft of loving care.
My spiritual beliefs, and to an extent my political ones, when I really think into them, basically boil down to a more universal version of the horse analogy: We are all the horse. The horse is all of us. When you kick anyone (including the earth’s atmosphere), you are kicking yourself.
Anyway, I paced around the house, monitoring my body and my thoughts and feeling very alone and scared. Then I remembered that I believe in powers greater than my own frantic mind. I call the object of my belief God, but lots of names will do. It’s a power and intelligence that I see most clearly in nature, and in other people, their tendernesses. I don’t believe it has an interventionist spirit, but the gestures of prayer have long worked for me, as a way of remembering my own faith in something beyond myself. I stopped in the middle of the hallway, squeezed my eyes shut and whispered please and thank you in the way I have been doing since I got sober at 23. It helped immediately. My leg still twitched, but I was able to remember how loved I am. I was able to think of other things. I was able to return to this new relationship with my body that is not adversarial but tender. I called my wife, did some stretches, answered some emails, and went to a recovery meeting.
It’s funny sometimes to remember my old idea of “toughness.” I wanted to be tough like a tack or an old piece of leather. To not need anything or anyone. But it turns out that recognizing my own needs, and tenderness is the real deal. To return to tenderness is the boldest, toughest, hardest, most transformative choice I’ve ever made. I have seen its healing power. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that it has revolutionary power.
I have another book coming out in two months. It’s called Body Work. It’s not about most of what I’ve covered here, but it is about returning to tenderness. How writing about my life has been the single most powerful agent in that project. How it is the first place that I learned to integrate the physical, spiritual, intellectual, and psychological aspects of myself, and how that integration has made me a more useful member of society, and a better artist. It’s a book for writers, and all kinds of artists who want to make art out of their lives (and especially those who are scared to), but not only them. It’s for anyone who wants to be more awake in themselves, in their lives. You can read more about it, and preorder it, here. Some writers I admire have said nice things about it, and it’s already gotten some wonderful reviews. I’ll be launching it virtually with Mary Karr and Leslie Jamison, via Books Are Magic, on March 15. All my upcoming events, including some one-day virtual seminars this winter and some weeklong summer conferences, are posted here.
P.S. I am in the process of delving into the great wealth of disability literature that exists, and would love recommendations, if you have them.
P.P.S. I do not need recommendations for bad back things, and I know about John Sarno’s work. But if you’ve had a laminectomy/discectomy, or experience healing neuroplastic pain, I’d be happy to hear about your experience.
P.P.P.S. Here is an essay (published last weekend in the NYRB) that I wrote about being a queer teen, my first therapist, and how important Jeannette Winterson’s work (and the work of lots of queer authors) was to me.
*We eloped back in June! Here’s an essay about our mutual marriage proposals that I published in Elle in July.