January 1, 2014

Built Environment and Able Bodies

I have made a home for myself in solitude, yet find myself lately wishing for the company of my friends. The people that I trained to run years back have now all left me trailing behind -- or, more often, sitting at home, coughing and muttering excuses, knowing that I could never keep up. And in losing pace with their training, I've begun to lose pace with their friendships, as well. My partner always falls into step with me, often running small circles around me as I clutch my lower back and heave with coughs, gasping that I'll be ready again soon. Lately, I've just gone out on my own rather than see him worry over what we both know will eventually pass.

But this is the Pacific Northwest in January. It's pitch black by 4:30, and I live in a small, impoverished city on the outer limits of Seattle. I'm no longer fast, my breathing often rattling in my chest, which leaves me feeling afraid and vulnerable, wheezing down the dark, empty trails at night. It's a 45 minute bus ride/walk to see even my closest friends, which is a far distance to go for someone with chronic fatigue and a necessary "Seize the Moment" approach to running.

I've put a lot of thought over the past year into the accessibility of running, as in WHO has access. An acquaintance - young, Caucasian, able-bodied doctor who lives in the more affluent area of Seattle - once wrote a post on Facebook explaining his frustrations with races. "Why do you need to get a shirt and a medal?" he complained. "Everyone should be able to run 26 miles. It's not that hard. It's not a huge accomplishment. It just means that you did the bare minimum to be able keep moving."

My first thought reading that was, "You and I are living in different worlds, son." His comment was ableist and put no thought into the differences of access to space for people living in lower income areas.

I look, on the outside, like I am fully able-bodied, as does my brother. To someone like this man, we would appear to be able to run 26 miles -- that is, if we were willing. But bodies hide pain well, and we live in a society that expects Hopeful Answers and Stories of Triumph. Those who live in the realm of the unwell face pressure to ignore or look beyond their bodies and then can feel shame when they're unable to deliver society's Narrative of Optimism. For me, that shame is compounded by the fact that, at one time, 26 miles WAS easy.

At the same time, many people live in areas where distance running simply is not safe. I can run approximately 4 miles through my tiny neighborhood before needing to branch off onto unlit streets without sidewalks, a thoroughfare dotted with prostitutes and gang activity, or a surprise enclave of over 100 registered sex offenders tightly bunched near the Department of Homeland Security office and our local elementary school. And by comparison, this is a pretty safe neighborhood with a Planning Department and City Council who have put a lot of thought and intentionality into how built environment affects health.

So to avoid being Bare Minimum Doctor or Fit Mom, think about what really shapes your experience, and how that experience may be different for someone else.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences!