Ever since I started this project with Rheea and Rachel, the focus has been on the national news. We’ve been going through a national election here in the states and it has seemed frivolous to talk about Portland or my personal life given what’s been going on with the election.
But at some point, despite all the fear and uncertainty, I must return to the original purpose of this series; we’re talking about cities. We’re talking about Portland and Bangalore and Seoul.
So I want to tell you about what is going on in Portland: there was some snow over the last two days. On Wednesday it snowed in the afternoon and by the time five pm rolled around there was a good inch of fresh powder on the ground. Rush hour hit and mayhem ensued. Hundreds of cars were abandoned along streets and freeways. There were many, many accidents. On-ramps and off-ramps were completely shut down. It took commuters up to six hours to get home when normally it would have taken them forty-five minutes to an hour. At OHSU, one of the major hospitals in Portland, a water main broke. Three major buildings including the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital were temporarily without water. My sister, an ER nurse in Troutdale, told me that all the hospitals in the metro area were at capacity, but the ambulances kept coming and coming all night long. Schoolchildren, teachers and staff were stuck overnight at some schools because traffic was blocked to and from the schools due to downed trees and traffic accidents. School buses were also stuck in traffic (just like everyone else) and children had to wait hours upon hours to get home. Portland is also in the middle of a housing crisis and I can’t help but think of all the newly homeless people trying to survive outside in this miserable weather.
I have canceled most of my plans in the last few days. It’s supposed to snow again tomorrow and I’m sure I will have to cancel more plans. The intersection outside my house is a skating rink. I am literally watching children sled and snowboard down my street as I write this. I’ve been drawing and tindering and facebooking and working on real estate odds and ends.
People from other parts of the country always make fun of Portlanders when this kind of weather hits us. It seems ridiculous to someone in say, Buffalo or Chicago, that one inch of snow could shut down an entire city. Part of the problem is that yes, people don’t really know how to drive in the snow here. (I know I don’t. And I don’t want to. I have no snow tires or chains for my car. Plus, I still owe a lot of money on my car and don’t want to risk even a fender bender.) The second part of the problem is that Portland lacks the kind of infrastructure to deal with the snow. We don’t have nearly enough plows or trucks to drop gravel or salt. So when we get a little snow, it’s total chaos.
On Tuesday, the day before the snow, I went up to OHSU to get an infusion of Reclast, an osteoporosis medication. I have had severe Osteoporosis for over ten years. People are always surprised to hear this; I look pretty normal. No hunched back or other signs of bone decay. I am in no pain, and mostly the osteoporosis has no impact on my life. It’s just another side effect of the Cushing’s disease and massive hormonal disruptions that plagued me in my twenties.
I am very grateful however that I am finally addressing the bone issue because I truly don’t want to be worried about breaking my bones all the time. Under advice from my doctors I don’t run, or ride a bike, or engage in any other high-impact activities that could potentially lead to a fracture. When I first discovered the osteoporosis, it was because I ran up and down stairs barefoot and got stress fractures in both my ankles. I was twenty-six. I was unable to walk for several weeks, was in intense pain and started smoking again, after I’d not had a cigarette for over a year. Memories of that time haunt me still. It was awful.
But I’m excited because the Reclast will help rebuild my bones and help them from getting any more brittle than they already are. I will never have normal bone density again (for my age) but at least this treatment will help to keep my bones from getting any worse. I was told by my doctor, and the nurse that gave me the infusion, that I might experience flu-like symptoms after the procedure. They said that this effect usually happens only once, and that when I come back in a year for my next infusion, I most likely will not react.
That night, as I sat by the fire with my roommate, I got up to go to bed and I was struck with intense pain all over my body. I had trouble breathing deeply, moving my right arm and walking or bending over. The pain came on suddenly. The next day, I stayed home and took it easy as my sister Simone helped me put zines together. I was bewildered by the sudden pain and called the advice line at my doctor’s office. They told me to alternate between Tylenol and ibuprofen for the pain, but that I shouldn’t be alarmed by my reaction to the drug. This is the price I had to pay for healthy bones I guess.
Yesterday my roommate and I ventured out to get some groceries at Safeway. It’s a short walk from our house, but we took it slow; there were tons of slick icy patches and I didn't want to fall. To be honest I’m always in fear of falling. And I feel self-conscious about my anxiety about falling. I feel like people will think I’m making a big deal out of it. I mean one broken bone isn’t the end of the world.
But then I started thinking about where this self-consciousness comes from; I’ve had my fair share of bad encounters with personal trainers who made me feel ashamed of my weakness, my fear of pain and injury. Their general attitude was that I was being a crybaby, or that I really didn’t understand how my own body worked. In fact most people who work at gyms and are naturally athletic have no idea what life is like for the rest of us, and especially what it’s like for those of us that are chronically ill. (This is one of the reasons that I often toy with the idea of becoming a trainer just so that I can work with chronically ill people.) I had internalized their judgment and this thinking wasn’t healthy. In addition to this I thought about how most of the athletic people I know, have had many, many injuries that have not prevented them from getting back to snowboarding or bicycling etc. In their view it’s just par for the course.
As I walked gingerly through the snow and ice I thought: how is my experience different than theirs? Why did I not have the resiliency of these athletes, and most “healthy” people?
And then I thought: it’s because I don’t have the proper infrastructure. I am like the city of Portland. Like one inch of snow, one fracture can seriously derail my life and cause chaos. One slip and fall, one set of stress fractures will lead me to depression and bad habits that could take me months and months to repair.
This is the thing: I’m not just physically disabled and chronically ill, I’m also mentally ill. I have no shame in this. Twenty percent of the US population is mentally ill and actually I think it’s probably much higher than that, except that people are under-diagnosed. Having a predisposition to depression and especially anxiety, has made my life more difficult and I have had to adjust in order to survive and live the kind of life I want to live. It has been my experience that setbacks like broken bones or a bad illness (like bronchitis or a bad flu) can send me into a depression almost immediately. Having depression causes me to be less resilient than other people. It’s harder for me to overcome setbacks. It’s hard for me to maintain a positive attitude when I’m in pain or can’t do my normal activities. There are things I have to do in order to maintain my mental health – one of them is avoiding physical injury at all costs. And it’s important that I take ownership of these disabilities even if it makes me feel different or self-conscious. It’s my life after all and I won’t apologize for wanting to be happy and stable.
On our way home from the store, as I dodged icy patches, I thought: what I am really avoiding is not a fracture on its own, I am really side-stepping depression at every turn. I am managing my life as best I can given the circumstances. Likewise the city wasn’t shut down on account of one inch of snow, it was shut down because it was unprepared. And let’s face it, Portland will always be unprepared for snow. We don't have the infrastructure, the bones for snow. We only have this weather once in a blue moon and the cost/benefit analysis will probably never pan out for more snow equipment.
Part of being mentally healthy is accepting reality. I feel grateful for this realization; that my avoidance of injury is not silly, in fact it’s necessary for my well-being . Likewise, as east-coasters shame us for our poor snow performance, I say: walk a mile in our bad-snow shoes and icy side streets before you judge.