Went to see the orthopedist today after rescheduling twice. He came in and sat down and I told him I was feeling better – very little pain, no medication. I can feel the stiffness still, especially if I sit for too long, and my core is weaker. My movements are a little more mechanical. He seemed enthusiastic, but also had in hand MRI results. All of a sudden I felt I knew what he would say.
“You have disc degeneration at multiple levels, which is allowing for the disc material to come out at some places, and which is leading to spinal stenosis. You also have arthritis in your back. Basically, your spine is a lot older than you are. “
He went on to say that stretching and yoga would be good, and that surgery would not make much sense because it would not be some sort of micro surgery with tiny incisions. I also know that there is limited success with lower back surgeries. There was a gym in the area that had a back health program, and maybe I should try some turmeric tea. The best bet was to maintain a strong core and stay healthy for long stretches of time, months or even years. The bluntness and realism of the diagnosis was baffling, housing both doom and hope.
I am not old by any means, but with thirty descending on me, it no longer feels hyperbolic to say that I am feeling the effects of ageing. So it was true, then. I remember my mother telling me degenerative disc is the diagnosis I got years ago, too. I have to think of this as an issue I will deal with for life. It also means I have my work cut out for me now. One reason my back is so much older than I am has to be my periods of fluctuating weight, and my historically weak core muscles. I know autism and sensory dysfunction are linked to overall muscle weakness, and think that this is another piece of all this I have yet to examine. But I have explicit reason now to keep my weight down, to start a stretching practice (something I have been saying I would do for a long time), and maintain my muscle tone. I have something to gain back, namely my weightlifting benchmarks, and something new to work into my life. I have odds to beat, and a narrative to write.
A part of my sensory dysfunction, and something I can remember affecting me much worse as a child, is a need to release pent up energy. I have always experienced periods of time I can scarcely stop chattering to myself, or tapping my leg, or during which I walk at an unnecessarily brusque pace . It comes out in voices, cartoon characters, self created, and otherwise. It also comes out in song lyrics, frustration bellows. Mostly, the reason it gets stored rather than released is because of having sensory stressors while at the same time occupying public places and needing to account for external judgement. What is more important in the moment – my comfort or my social capital? It is for this reason being a gym rat has been important to me. It gives me an outlet, a release. Before the gym, I woke up early to play football with my classmates, and played at lunch when I could. There has always been something, so that I don’t feel quite so caged.
But what about folks who aren’t weight lifters or particularly thrilled with the idea of exercise? What if you can’t get to a gym? There have to be ways to release one’s energy, uncomfortable for others or not. I have seen the same phenomenon manifest in other autistic individuals in any manner of involuntary twitches and automatic tics. They wring their hands or contort their faces or laugh or scream, or rock, or run from one place to another for no particular reason. In some ways regret that I have gone the route of so much segmentation- I am too embarrassed to share my thought loops and self-speech and repetitive actions even with my fiancée, Celeste, any more than a snippet at a time. The people who have any number of consistent releases for these feelings may receive more judgement, but they are administering self care and this is a basic, necessary lesson in any human life. In some ways I have sacrificed the ability to have more of a static self across all areas of my life. Celeste is the same person, no matter where she is. She has more self knowledge and integrity than almost anyone I know.
But sacrifices must be made for the sake of independence and functionality. I have to be able to carry on in my workplace, create and teach and maintain classes, have relationships with co workers, keep a desk that at least makes a little sense. So I watch myself, and I perform, and I funnel my frustrations into acceptable outlets, like working out. In so doing, I have perhaps allowed my ego to become too strong, put too much on external perception, which has helped me get along in a society that prizes egoic accomplishment, but has hindered me in my ability to maintain self-esteem while working my way back up to physical fitness. It’s a development I don’t love. The autistic introspection difficulty makes it even harder to distinguish between pride and self love, a distinction society rather scoffs at. It goes back to the debate between taoism and confucianism – is it better to go along with the natural flow of nature (your own nature) or to do your best to use your attributes and station to contribute to society? Can I view or build myself nondualistically, and meaningfully pursue both? What would conflicting pursuit do to my body house?
Being injured has left me time to parse out which standards I’ve inherited from my environment have been helpful, and which I can do without. It has taught me how much my coping mechanisms mean to me, and has taught me not to value to narrow a slice of my own personhood (physical ability, appearance). Much more important to Meditate. Eat well. Stretch. Be humble at the squat rack. Maybe let more autism slip. Let go of societally built standards for success and beauty, and ironically enjoy more respect and better standing and better looks as a result.