Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Invisible Restraints

Back when I was a kid riding the school bus, I always sat in the front seat behind the driver. I did this because it afforded me the greatest protection from the constant stream of torment directed my way from kids who wanted to bully me because of my weight. It's not that the bus driver did anything to control them, but rather that the mere proximity of an adult and the limited access to me from that location helped curtail such behavior.

One day, the driver was approaching a stretch of road in what would be the "heart" of the tiny rural town in which my high school was located. An older woman had taken it upon herself to cross this main street at a random spot with no street light or crosswalk, and the bus driver had to stop essentially in the middle of a stretch of road where stopping wasn't supposed to happen in order to accommodate her slow progress across the street. I remember scoffing at the old lady's poor choice of location to cross and saying she should have looked for oncoming traffic and chosen a more appropriate spot at which to cross. The bus driver, herself a rather mature woman, got angry at me and scolded me for judging the pedestrian. She said that she knew that lady and that she had infirmities which made it difficult for her to walk and that I should have compassion for her.

This situation illustrates something that occurs almost certainly every minute of the day somewhere in the developed world. A person with physical difficulties which the outside world cannot detect with the naked eye observes a person doing something, acting a particular way, or, in the case of fat people, looking a certain way, and they make a judgement. They make their conclusions divorced from the facts, and they always declare the other party lacking.

When I was younger, and yet unencumbered by any sort of serious physical difficulties, this was a mistake I made. Now that I'm older, and have a whole host of issues which are holding me back, I know that people can seem fine in their outward appearance, but that problems that limit their capacity to do whatever they want to do including pursue better health are hiding behind the surface.

Recently, NewMe did a post about her anger and frustration about her knee and other problems which hold her back from fully enjoying her life or doing the things which will increase her rate of weight loss. Her post was a very timely one for me because I have also been encountering the same road blocks. I've actually been encountering them for decades, but recently have been running up against them more often since I've been trying to expand the range of activities I'm attempting. My body is not repaying me with increased flexibility and strength, but with pain and troubling side effects.

Lately, I've been trying to do some beginner yoga and dance DVDs in addition to walking and light weight lifting. Note that I do everything gradually because I'm all too aware of my limits and frailty. When I started walking, I started at a mere 5 minutes and weight lifting started at 5 reps. Slowly adding from there has mitigated some of the "growing pains", but certainly not eliminated them. I still suffer muscle aches and pains all of the time. The pain is with me every single day, but it is getting slowly less acute.

Last night, I did about 20 minutes of the most modest and rudimentary yoga routine. This was the third time I'd added a little more to my attempts with this particular DVD (Lilias Yoga for beginners). I only ever do the stretches and moves to my limited capacity because I do not have the flexibility to do even the basic moves she shows, so I'm not pushing myself into pain territory (though I do have to push to stretch - there's a point where you tax the muscle a bit, but don't damage yourself). All went pretty well, until about a half hour after when my ring finger on my right hand started to go numb. All night, my right hand and finger experienced intermittent numbness from compression of a nerve in my back due to inflammation. This is not a new experience for me. It used to happen to me all of the time when I first started walking.

My back problems may seem to exist as a result of my weight, but the truth is that there is a congenital defect in my spine. I first had back issues at the age of 12, and then they eventually went away. When they recurred with a vengeance in my 30's, I had testing which showed a little crack on an X-Ray on one of my lower vertebrae. I was told that I should lose weight, but that there was nothing I did to create this problem nor anything I could do to stop it aside from reducing my weight and increasing my fitness level to take the pressure off of my bone structure. Of course, there is a "chicken and the egg" issue at play. My back problems make it hard to lose weight or be fit, and not being fit or at a lower weight make my back issues worse.

So, here I am doing everything I can to lose weight and be stronger, including adding to and mixing up my exercise routine so that I can develop muscles in various directions, but I'm like a runner at the gate who is being held back from starting because of some invisible restraint. All of the will and motivation in the world doesn't do me any good as long as the flesh and bones are weak. It's important to keep in mind that "everything I can do" isn't the same as "everything one can do" for a particular individual. Just as I didn't know that old lady couldn't walk well enough to choose a better crossing spot or cross faster and shouldn't have judged her, people shouldn't be judging me or anyone else by simply looking at them. We don't know what circumstances are holding other people back, and we can't tell by just looking at them. Even more than not judging them, it's important to have compassion for the fact that they suffer not only because of the immediate effects (pain, slowness) of their limits, but because there are productive and enjoyable things they might want to do very badly (including but not limited to losing weight) and can't do because of them.


NewMe said...

As I started reading your post, I immediately felt like saying, "Amen, sister". And then I saw the two links to my blog. Thank you so much. I'm sure you know how wonderful it feels to know that people are reading what you have to say and that your words touch and speak to others.

Yesterday I too tried out a new, expensive brace in the hope that it would allow me to do a bit more exercise. And with that experiment, I have now thrown even more money out the window and only have an inflamed knee to thank for it!

And yet, we keep trying. And that's a good thing.

As you know, I'm a big fan of yoga, but I do advise caution. If you have any type of disability, it is wise to find a yoga therapist, who is trained in dealing with disabilities and finding adaptations to help the student develop a safe, positive practice. There is actually an international association of yoga therapists website ( I realize that you may not be able to find/afford a yoga therapist where you are currently living, but at least I've given you the information.

Once again, thanks for the great post (even without your kind link to my blog!). As always, great food for thought.

Anonymous said...

When I first decided to lose weight and improve my physical fitness I found a piece of exercise equipment (NuStep) that is like a recumbent elliptical and features (for an extra cost) knee and ankle stabilizers, and it is so gentle on joints that it is often used in rehab facilities after knee surgery and hip surgery. Oh my gosh, I thought I had the answer to all my problems--until I saw the price!!! (Close to $6000 for the model I needed.)

There are invisible barriers to fitness that could be overcome if access to such equipment were more widely available at no cost or very low cost to those who cannot afford it. I will be first in line to volunteer the day a foundation begins with a mission to help obese people, with disabilities of any kind, gain access to equipment that already exists and is proven effective but is affordable only to the most wealthy among us.