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Thursday, November 7, 2013

End of the Tunnel

A story about living with the label of "disability". The symposium on that topic (in NIB 3.3) will be out in December of 2013. 

By M. Sophia Newman

Sleeping during a Norwegian summer can be nearly impossible. The country lies on the far northern edge of our titled, rotating planet. In summer, nightfall is meaningless: pink twilight can fade to pale gray night and reverse to peachy dawn within tow hours. Inside the Arctic Circle, even that brief twilight is absent--the sun is out continuously for nearly three months. Without sunset, the brain, which normally reacts to darkness like a bird with a blanket over its cage, cannot figure out when to sleep. It become easy to lie awake on the sofa, gazing at the sky.

Back home, on a dark night months before. I had been on another sofa with a handsome friend. Three days before, he'd asked me out. I'd been flattered. He was an advanced student in the martial arts school where we'd met, and I liked his bold generous laugh.

Three days later, I had started training in martial arts after surviving a violent attack, which had given me post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I had shared my story to explain how victim-blaming can be as harmful as abuse, convincing the school to improve information on stigma in its self-defense curriculum. But I'd noticed my friend had been unsettled by my personal disclosures. Here on his sofa, I realized his fears weren't fully resolved. 

 To answer them felt easy. The traumatic violence was eight years in the past. My friend was a doctor, so there was no need to explain the symptoms: irritability, expectations of harm, inability to focus, sleeplessness. I merely said they were all past tense. I had gone from victim to survivor to quiet advocate, trading personal pain for social insights. 

"It's not that I've seen the light at the end of the tunnel," I told him. "It's that I've reached the end of the tunnel and set of running through fields of flowers in the sunshine."

"Hmm," he said, perhaps critiquing the metaphor's schamltzy quality. He paused, and then-as if working to believe me--said, "You are more jovial than most people with this problem."

"I've turned back into the person I was supposed to have been all along," I said.

"Hmm," he murmured, disbelieving. I could feel our date crash-landing.

I considered this my main disability: not my illness, but his disbelief. I felt my statements about my own well-being were as credible as anyone's. But my friend seemed to regard my trauma as a permanent fragility, despite my statements to the contrary. Perhaps he mislabeled my hard-won happiness as misguided, willful naivete. It didn't matter much--rather than the condition itself, it was his stigma that bound me. 

I worried over him until I went to Norway months later. The vacation, though, wasn't about fleeing him. I had come to see friends, and to run a half-marathon in the Midnight Sun Marathon festival. 

The race was in a beautiful town called Tromso.   The town sits on a small island surrounded a winding freshwater estuary, sheltered from the Arctic sea by a peninsula of lichen-covered mountains. The town is the largest this far north, but it is tiny. The island has room for stands of birch and open fields of thistle and Queen Anne's lace. Overhead, the polar summer sun flitted through a tight circular path, rather than its usual arc between horizons. 

On race day, we ran under a sunny late-night sky. Long-distance running demands almost nothing but persistence. Runners, no matter how nimble, can feel overwhelmed by raw exertion. A few miles into the first race of my life, I felt deep fatigue.

But it lifted when I remembered that this race proved how well I was. Earlier in my life, physical exertion had been a reliable way to elicit flashbacks, the ultra-vivid memories that characterize PTSD. This was a quirk of how my damaged brain reacted to biochemicals released during exercise. No clinician had ever been able to advise me, but I had used the fluke to heal--running until memories overwhelmed me, and then soothing myself, rewriting my perceptions of the past. It had worked. Now I could run until I was fatigued, not until I was frightened. My brain had heeled. 

Eight miles into the 13.1 mile race, I ran through a low underpass. Then, what I had said to my friend on his sofa suddenly became literal: I was running out the end of the tunnel and through a field of flowers in the clear sunshine. It wasn't a schmaltzy metaphor, but a reality so clear and profound-and silly-I began to laugh out loud. I smiled until I crossed the finish line just after midnight.

Later, I reconsidered my friend. The midnight sun is a phenomenon hard to believe. The idea that the sky could be consistently dark and then relentlessly light was rationally true but strange-feeling. To my friend, I was the same way. I had been all dark in illness, but all bright and sunny now. To him, it was unbelievable. 

He was a doctor, and I found his incapacity strange. But he had just passed through a terrible relationship with someone for whom mental illness was deeply disabling. Perhaps, he, too, was in his own endless darkness, where steady sunlight was a bewildering thought. 

Irrespective of my friend's errors, it was wrong to impose stigma on disabled people. It's even more wrong to insist a person remain stigmatized when the disability has already been resolved. The problem, in the end, was his inability to see my human qualities beyond my PTSD, me as I really was. 

Running in Tromso, I realized the misbelief was his problem, not mine. In my head, I wished him well. And far and away, across fields of wildflowers under that astonishing sun, I ran off towards my own life.



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