This blog is different to all my preceding ones, in which I have talked about reading and writing, for the most part. Here, for the first time, I talk about my body.
It’s a body I’ve carried around with me for more than 52 years on this Earth currently and has generally served me well. Growing up in ‘Northern Rhodesia’ (and then turned post-colonial Zambia initially), subsequently followed by a further 25 years naturalising in a more volatile apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, my body has carried me through comfortably most of that time – apart from just short of a decade at the end of school, into University and early working life with ‘Irritable Bowel Syndrome‘ (IBS). This IBS eventually cleared up with 3 years of Jungian analysis while training as a clinical psychologist in Kwa-Zulu Natal — and ultimately learning to relax my body a little better. (All the while, the State of Emergency was raging in South Africa and many of my fellow (black), not even considered ‘second-class citizens’, were having their bodies killed or severely damaged by far more aggressive and damaging forces.)
Post euphoria from our first democratic elections in ’94 and just before coming to the UK in my mid-30s however, I had my first painful experience of (thankfully acute!) prostatitis. But, as I expected it to, my body recovered and I moved on to living just short of a decade in London, UK – then 2 years in Aotearoa New Zealand, before returning to London with some mid-life disappointment, that the NZ venture had not unfolded as had been hoped.
July 2008 was a turning point – firstly, chronic dizziness, nausea, tinnitus and deafness/fullness in the right ear – eventually diagnosed the following year as ‘Meniere’s Disease’ (no cure), then, in March 2009, the painful and debilitating prostatitis was back – but this time, it refused to go away, despite a full year of antibiotics (Chronic Prostatitis/Chronic Pelvic Pain Syndrome: CP/CPPS – no cure either). In 2010, I was also diagnosed with Hypertension – yippee, accruing a chronic disease a year, what a record to keep up – but at least these medications actually worked!!
WTF, body?? WTF??
Gradually, I became aware of so many others with yes, a lot heavier health burden than me – yes, I have constant pelvic pain and piss poorly with sex now painful, but at least I can still move around and do things. But there are some things I can no longer do – my working efficiency is compromised – chronic pain grinds your brain into a fog and although analgesics can take the worst of the edge off, it never goes away. Gradually I became aware – and then grudgingly accept – in many ways these illnesses have ‘disabled’ me. I became far more conscious of ‘disability’ discourses around me and read up on the (UK) Disability Discrimination Act. Like my gradual awareness of white privilege in South Africa, contrasting starkly with the conditions of my black compatriots at the time, I came to realise how privileged I’d hitherto been as ‘able-bodied’ too.
But what to do?
Last year I had a conversation with another writer in Cape Town and I spoke about how hard it was to stay in my body with the pain – we batted around the idea of perhaps writing a story where one can shift into other bodies, as and when needed. But when it came down to writing the story, I couldn’t. Firstly, I became aware it had already been done so well by others – for example, in Octavia Butler’s ‘Wild Seed’ – and the character who had this ability, ‘Doro,’ was not one I identified with. Secondly, I realised there was an inherent problem in this idea – an implied running away from the body.
But is this perhaps also what my body might – at least partly – be ‘telling’ me? All my life, I had both taken it for granted and perhaps ‘run-away’ from it, with mental pursuits that made me feel as if I were just a walking head. This time, there was no escaping the visceral, raw and painful meat throughout and at the base of my experiencing.
So, my new aim is to properly inhabit my body. To OCCUPY it, in the powerful word of change thrown up by recent political winds. One way of doing this is to face the pain, not to hide away from it or fight it, but to hold it – and, in the words of John Kabat-Zinn, admittedly mangled by my paraphrasing: ‘to play with the edges of it.’ That means both ‘acceptance’ and ‘mindfulness’: a being-in-the-now Western appropriation of ancient Occidental Buddhist wisdom. That is, learning to live under my skin daily, via meditative ‘body scans’ which reacquaints me with my own body. (This is brilliantly described in Tim Park’s ‘Teach Us to Sit Still’, confronting a similar health condition to my own.)
Finally, I am learning to serve my body, instead of ‘it’ serving me. Learning to sink into it – to submerge myself in who I really am. And, for my balance problems from the Meniere’s Disease, the ancient Chinese art of tai chi is proving an exhilarating practice and invaluable support. Nowadays, I look at myself in the mirror without any embarrassment anymore – strangely, I am becoming happier in my body. Yes, it’s on the older side of some timeline or other, biologically, and yes, it’s fading softly at the edges – but it’s mine – and it’s beautiful, despite its pain and imperfections. I feel as if I am finally coming home again – I’ve moved across the globe, but through it all, my body has been my one and constant companion
So, here’s to the celebration of BODIES everywhere on this planet – of whatever ability, race, species, gender and sexuality spectrum, etc., etc. This is all we have to live in – let’s love and respect its raw reality as ‘us’ – AND its beautiful diversity.
Actually, no, I haven’t carried my body around with me for 52 years. My body has carried me – and so, I now find I well up with tears when I hear the old Hollies classic; ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother…’ now, I think of both my fellow-humans and my own body.
To the oncoming month of Movember then – men’s health yes – but as for moustache growing though, my family have said they will sponsor me NOT to grow one.
Finally, I no longer expect too much from my body anymore – I am so grateful for all it still does, perhaps no longer quietly in the background anymore, but it’s all that keeps me alive and still warmly and continuously feeds me both experiences and words.
If you and I ever meet, though, probably best not to ask me how I am. I might be one of those who bore you with copious, unwanted bodily detail. The safest greeting to use is probably the old (white) South African favourite: ‘Howzit!’
Which is what I say to my body on waking every morning.
So, yes again to men’s health – and to women’s health – YES too!
YES, to the Body!
Nick Wood Nov/Dec 2013