Disability and Representation

Changing the Cultural Conversation

On Brokenness

I’ve been giving some thought to the work “broken” as applied to the human body. For years, I’ve reacted against the word. I’ve seen it as an implied comparison with “normal,” as a judgment, and as a form of devaluation. And it often is. But I’m not sure it has to be, and I’m having a change of heart about it.

Part of what’s driving this change is that I’m coming to terms with my own sense of brokenness. Trauma and loss have broken my old sense of myself and the ease of my trust in other people. A different sense of myself is emerging, and a different kind of faith, but the old sense of self and the old faith have been badly broken, and that is part of surviving trauma. It breaks your heart. It breaks your trust. You don’t put the pieces back together in the same way.

For a number of years, I insisted that everything was perfectly intact, that no damage had been done, that any damage I thought had been done was an illusion. There was shame there for the breakages that had actually occurred. There was shame in believing that something had broken.

My soul is not broken. My soul cannot be broken. But my soul lives in space and time, in a body, and the body hurts when the soul does, and the mind has to deal with loss.

And then there is my physical body — specifically, my back. The working theory is that I pulled a ligament between my spine and my hip at some point in my life.  For a long while, my body compensated as best it could, and I did not even know that anything was awry. I had a little tightness and soreness, but nothing alarming at all. And then, one day, my body’s ability to compensate broke down, my hip got too loose, and I ended up lying on the floor, barely able to move with the pain of muscle spasms all across my lower back. I could barely crawl to the bathroom for pain relievers or lift myself to the freezer for an ice pack – and once I got them, they barely worked. My body’s ability to compensate for an injury – an injury that I might have gotten sliding into first base when I was ten – had ended.

There is something broken there – a ligament that isn’t holding my hip in place. I’m doing all kinds of core strengthening exercises to compensate and hold my hip straight, and they’ve helped tremendously, but the ligament will never go back to what it was, and very occasionally, the pain flares up again. There was also some nerve impingement in the beginning, and a few times, the signals didn’t get to my knees and it momentarily felt as though I didn’t have any. I didn’t fall, but it was an odd and worrisome feeling. It’s one of the reasons that I got a cane — the other one being that the cane gives me a point of reference for walking with my legs parallel to each other and keeps my right hip from over-rotating. When my hip over-rotates, I’m risking a flare-up.

I’m not sure that it’s bad to think about my body as broken when parts of have stopped functioning optimally, although I can feel my mind resisting the whole idea. And I’m not sure it’s bad to think about my trust and my sense of my old self having been broken when it’s abundantly true, although I can feel the fear that arises when I do.

Perhaps the problem is that the word “broken” has such negative connotations. We think of “broken” as synonymous with “Devalue it and throw it on the scrap heap.” That’s what we do in this culture with broken things. We render them worthless and we put them out with the trash. It’s also what we do with people whose bodies don’t fit a narrow standard.

But I’m starting to redefine “broken” as  “Work around it.” Or “Reclaim it.” Or “Get a mobility aid.” Or  just “It is what it is.”

I don’t really want to reclaim every single bodily and mental experience. Some physical and emotional experiences are awful. But I need to be able to say simultaneously, “This experience gives me pain” and “I love this body I live in because it gives me life.” I don’t want to devalue myself or my body because other people have broken my trust, or because the PTSD makes my body hurt, or because my body is fragile and does what bodies inevitably do.

I’m not a thing to be ranked according to whether I meet some standard of “wholeness.” I’m a person who experiences brokenness, just like everyone else.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


    6 comments already | Leave your own comment

  1. 10/21/2013 | 6:03 am Permalink

    The idea of reclaiming this word is a very interesting one that I look forward to thinking about. I’ve had mixed reactions to reclamation. Queer works for me. Bitch, slut, and other gendered slurs firmly Do. Not. Crazy and mad I use in my head with my partner and one other very close friend. I do not use it with others outside those close to me because they confuse it with license to say it themselves since those words are so culturally common. In my life, the correct terms or diagnostic labels have been much more damaging than the reclaimed words.

    Broken. What resonates about this is that it seems that you are describing a deep level acceptance that honors the way things are instead of the constant struggle to return things to what they once were or to what society calls “normal.” There is a very peaceful feeling that comes with this, if I am understanding you correctly.

    This might be one of those reclamations that can help a lot with internalized ableism.

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  2. 10/22/2013 | 8:21 am Permalink

    I really needed to read this right now. Thank you for this.

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  3. 10/22/2013 | 11:05 am Permalink

    I appreciate this new perspective. Because “broken” doesn’t respond to a cure. When we’re broken, it’s time to inventory what’s at hand and rebuild.

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  4. 10/22/2013 | 1:14 pm Permalink

    I’m broken. A work of art ravaged by the passage of time and the accidents of life and CFS and a spinal fusion which didn’t help much.

    I am fortunate to live quietly in my little hole, not going out much because there is no energy for such extras, writing when I can lasso my brain and make it work for a while.

    I do the restorative things I can do – and I don’t worry about the fact that I can’t do them for long. Or that they hurt. It is in MY interest to maintain as much mobility as I can, so I fight for it – but I’m also the one who suffers the pain of doing so.

    Balance, balance, balance – all day long, and sometimes all night long.

    I would rather climb Mt. Everest, but it isn’t going to be a choice I get.

    Keep writing – it keeps us sane during this thing we call Life. We are all broken – but some of us are more conscious of this, and are doing what we can for our selves.


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  5. 10/22/2013 | 6:46 pm Permalink

    I’m going through dealing with back spasms right now and a sprained ankle and this struck home–and is helpful. My back problems actually will probably not be chronic yet (knock on wood) but the sprained ankle… when people ask if the back spasms contributed to that I just go “well, I’ve always been clumsy.” And I always have. My knees are broken down, I roll my ankles constantly. My doctors keep going “you’re only 31, you shouldn’t be having these issues” and I was internalizing that. I was crying over how “broken” I was becoming, how I was “too young” for that, how “weak” I was.

    But, you know, bodies break down over time. It happens. I might beat this back problem now, but I bet in 20 years it’ll come around again. It’s good to keep in mind.

    I don’t tend to throw out broken things. I can’t afford to. I fix them so they’re workable and go on–not perfect, but workable. Sometimes, I accept the brokenness of a thing and deal with it. And I should learn to do that with my body. Some parts of it I can fix, some I cannot. And that’s okay.

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  6. 10/27/2013 | 6:37 pm Permalink

    TABS — Temporarily Able Bodied. A lot folks are TABS until they age. Then everyone gets something.

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